Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Here Comes Santa Claus

Well, it finally happened. As we made our way towards the front doors of Safeway, Bug took one look at the fully costumed Salvation Army bell-ringer and happily shouted "Look mommy - it's Santa Claus!" In a way I was sort of horrified. All his young life I have immersed him in Jewish culture: JCC summer camp, Torah for Tots, Friday night services, a traditional Shabbat dinner every week, the shema each night before bed - and STILL he lights up like a . . . . well, like a Christmas tree at the sight of the man in the red suit.

And why shouldn't he? Santa comes to his school each year, bringing presents and cookies and laughter and a much-needed break from the daily routine of speech and physical therapy. Bug has no clue that this annual ritual has any religious significance - in fact, we always laugh at his blasé attitude towards Santa's classroom visits in contrast to the other kids. Filled with stories about this omnipotent figure who keeps detailed notes about their transgressions, most of the students spend the entire time terrified and crying in the corner. Then there's Bug, the only Jewish kid, who blithely goes through the motions of sitting on the generous stranger's lap for a second, eagerly grabs a toy from the bag, and then proceeds to ignore his existence for the rest of the afternoon.

The teacher always gives us the option of having Bug sit out any overtly Christmas-related activities, but what's the point? It seems cruel to deprive him of the gifts and food and fun, especially since he wouldn't understand why he was missing out. So it's not so surprising, or such a big deal, that he recognizes Santa when he see him - after all, I can't keep my kids shielded from the all-encompassing Christmas behemoth forever. But I know it is a short step from waving to Santa at a shopping mall to asking why Santa doesn't come to our house and why we don't have a twinkling tree in our living room.

It's hard to know exactly how to handle the whole Christmas issue with the kids. As an adult, I am very secure in my Jewish identity; so much so that I feel free to enjoy various yuletide trappings - the parties, the mulled cider, the bright blinking lawn decorations around the neighborhood - without feeling guilty or excluded. But I remember as a child feeling so conflicted during the holiday season. All around me were candy canes and tinsel and elaborate store window displays, snowflakes and reindeer and joyful carolers - but it was all meant for other people, not for me. I knew we weren't supposed to envy our Gentile neighbors, but of course I did! The other kids at school were forever describing the towering piles of presents awaiting them, making lists for Santa, and spending art class creating festive, glittery tree ornaments while I sat alone at my desk tracing a menorah stencil over and over.

Many parents combat this by making a really big deal out of Chanukah, a Jewish holiday that happens to occur within the same basic time frame. In theory I have no problem with elevating the status of the Festival of Lights, a beautiful celebration of religious freedom, victory against great odds, faith and miracles. But I hate to cheapen the holiday by attempting to tart it up into a "faux Christmas." For one thing, it is always going to suffer in comparison. It is a small, relatively minor holiday, and when you put it up against the glitz and glamour of Christmas it comes off looking kind of limp and pathetic - sort of like when your mom tries to pass off a carob cookie as being "just as good" as a Chips Ahoy.

Also, I really don't want to see Chanukah become all about the gifts and external trappings, leeched of any of its deeper meanings. One thing that I love about this time of year is that I am not caught up in a frenzy of buying and spending and overscheduling and stress. Instead I get to enjoy cozy evenings at home with my family, lighting candles, feasting on delicious hot latkes and chunky homemade applesauce with lots of cinnamon and whirling around the living room to my Reggae Chanukah CD. Maybe it is unrealistic to think that I can get the kids excited about Chanukah without appealing to their naturally acquisitive natures. But it is clear that I need to make a huge effort, starting this year, to think of creative ways to make the holiday meaningful and special for them . . . or risk being eclipsed by jolly old St. Nick.


Blogger exute said...

The need to "combat" the excitement of Christmas by making Chanukah a substitute was and is a big mistake. It is a waste of time, in my opinion, trying to teach little ones not only to enjoy Chanukah, but not to enjoy Christmas. There is plenty of time for them to learn the difference.

I've always thought that kids understand the difference far better and far earlier than parents give them credit for. The situation was never made better by having schools or other institutions add "I Had a Little Dreidel" to the holiday program to pacify "our Jewish students".

By the way, I think you handle it just fine.

2:53 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Hi Aimless,

I just discovered your blog, and reading your comments about Christmas vs. Chanukah, I felt like I could have written them. We're from New York and currently live in Paris, which makes things so much more complicated, but essentially I have had to deal with these issues all my life, as a child and now as a parent. One difference is that I went to Jewish day school, and send my kids to day school (except when we are living in Paris, which is temporary). Like you, I've been able to enjoy the trappings of Christmas (my mother even used to take us to Macy's to sit on Santa's lap) without feeling left out--I always believed that my holiday was superior. I think my kids feel the same. The eight nights/eight presents approach helps, although I also hate the commercial aspect of it, especially the fact that the presents are the most important feature of Chanukah for the kids. As they get older, though (my oldest is 15), they get somewhat less obsessed with the presents.

My advice is keep doing what you're doing, stay cool about it, and Bug will be fine. One other thing I've tried to make Chanukah more meaningful, especially for older kids, is to include a tzedakah aspect. One year, I saved all the charity direct mail we received for a month or so, then asked the kids to choose the eight charities they wanted to donate to. Each night, we made one contribution. This year, we're participating in a project organized here in Paris by the American Cathedral called Love in a Box, where you pack up a shoebox full of useful and fun items for a needy child.

My blog about Jewish parenting in Paris (among other things) is

12:46 PM  

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