In the '70s and '80s, I went to one of the snootiest prep schools on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. At one point it had been an all-girls enclave of WASPishness, but by the time I attended it was a coed bastion of laid-back, well-to-do Jewish liberals, the sons and daughters of movers and shakers, not to mention plain old rich people. We got a top-of-the-line education, but we had very little contact with anyone other than people from our social and financial strata. Our regular trips to country houses in the Hamptons, our ten-block cab rides to school, and our ridiculously lavish bar mitzvahs and Sweet 16 parties gave us very little face time with Gentiles, or as our grandparents called them, "the goyim."
This was all well and good every day of the year except one. The day winter vacation (not "Christmas break" -- couldn't mention Jesus in a school full of Jews, could you?) began, we'd have a half day of school. Most of the morning was spent in an assembly, during which the whole school, from kindergarten to 12th grade, crammed into the auditorium with the headmaster (we were way too posh for a mere principal) presiding over the festivities.
The only question was, which holiday to celebrate? Christmas, with all its pageantry and tradition? Hanukkah, which seemed more appropriate but didn't have more than about two songs that anyone was familiar with? Either way, it was going to be awkward. And that's without mentioning the many agnostics and atheists whose beliefs, or lack thereof, would not be represented or given full respect. Not to mention Muslims or Buddhists or members of any other religion. Of course, nobody like that attended my school so far as any of us knew, so it didn't really matter.
I have no idea who came up with the solution to such a thorny problem -- it was already an age-old tradition by the time I attended my first winter assembly in the mid '70s -- but in hindsight, it's absolutely brilliant. For one glorious morning, we all became pagans.
The ceremony started with the headmaster, who in my day was a bespectacled fellow with a demeanor not unlike that of a younger Ronald Reagan, striding onstage holding a long lit candle. Behind him, the stage was filled with more candles, most of them unlit, mounted on weird geometrically-shaped stands that made the whole thing feel even more like a particularly elegant Satanic mass. "In the season of the sun's rebirth," he would solemnly intone, "on the eve of the winter solstice, I consecrate this house ... with LIGHT." Then he'd walk over to one of the unlit candles and light that baby up. The only thing missing was a hooded robe and an altar on which to sacrifice one of the pre-K kids.
If that wasn't enough, one lucky "pagan" from every grade would march on up, candle in hand, for his or her own little bit of consecration. Starting with the sixth grader, each student would read a line from a poem which was either written by a student decades earlier or by some guy named Ffyglygthl in the 6th century, I'm not sure. "Build your house upon the hill of truth," it began, and went on to include such doozies as "May the Roof of your Dwelling be Love; the wing of the Archangel; the Great Fire."
When all the grades had lit a candle and the auditorium had miraculously failed to burst into flames for another year, the headmaster came back to proclaim "I have consecrated this house with light." At which point, to add to the total incomprehensibility of the morning, Mrs. Smith, our 137-year-old piano teacher, would launch into "Deck The Halls" and we'd all start singing Christmas carols, with "O Hanukkah" and "The Dreidel Song" thrown in for good measure.
I'm still amazed that, to the best of my knowledge, none of our parents ever complained that the school was trying to turn their children into godless, fire-worshiping heathens. These are people who would threaten lawsuits if their kids were given an A-minus on their chemistry midterms instead of an A. I suppose bowing down to the gods of flame one day a year didn't adversely affect a Harvard application.
I can sort of understand, however, why none of us thought twice about what was called "Candlelighting Day" but was really "Freaky Quasi-Druidic Festival." We were just kids, for cryin' out loud. Give us a half day of school with an assembly instead of classes and we'd do anything. Celebrate the holidays with a mass wedding presided over by Sun Myung Moon? No problem, as long as it gets me out of algebra. Bite the heads off some Christmas doves with Ozzy Osbourne? Like, sure, whatever. Is it noon yet?
I'm happy to report that in recent years, my alma mater has crafted an admissions policy that makes for a much more diverse student body than what we had in my day. It warms my heart to think that children of all races and religions get to experience the the joy of converting to Druidism, or paganism, or whatever it is, at least for one day a year. Now go consecrate that house with light, you crazy kids.
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