Christmas is a stressful time of year for Jewish parents, and not for the reasons you might think. There's no pressure to get Christmas shopping done, finish wrapping the presents or find the perfect gifts. Instead, the Jewish parent's concern relates to counteracting their kids' Christmas envy -- Where's our Christmas tree? But I want presents too! Is Santa an anti-semite?
Although I have a healthy admiration and respect for Christmas and what it brings (we go to New York every Christmas to admire the storefronts and festive decor), many Jews, including my husband, harbor a quiet resentment for the holiday, having been forced to sing Christmas carols in school year after year and inundated with "Merry Christmases" (the horror!) throughout his 41 years on Earth.
Our first son, Judah, has just turned 3 this year, and is only becoming aware of what Christmas is and the fact that we don't celebrate it. It's also becoming more and more obvious to me that our town is composed predominantly of Christmas enthusiasts engaging in Christmas rituals designed to suck you into the Christmas spirit, willing or not.
Two recent interactions with my 3-year-old made this especially clear.
One morning on our 10-minute commute to preschool, my son and I were exchanging what we were thankful for that day -- a game I made up that I call the 'thankful game' where we exchange all the things we're thankful for, usually in the car first thing in the morning. My son's thankful list invariably includes his most recent toy or "sweetie girl" (his baby sister). That day, it was this:
"Ima tankful fer Spiderman."
"Ima tankful it's Christmas-time."
(GGGGAAASSSSPPPP.) My ears turned red and then spiked a fever. In a knee-jerk reaction, I looked around the car to ensure that no one heard my Jewish son's heresy. There were no witnesses.
About a week later, Judah and I were picking up take-out at one of our favorite restaurants when a 6-foot tall man with a grey beard, gold spectacles and a red coat in the corner caught his eye.
"Who's that, mom?" said my son, pointing at the life-size statue.
Silently observing the half a dozen or so people standing around us whose ears perked up, I quickly considered my options. If we were alone, I probably would have responded with a "that's nobody, babe," but instead, I buckled under the Christmas pressure.
"Uhhhhhh... that's... uhhhh... that's... Santa."
"Santa!? Santa who?"
Picking up on the standerbys' shufflings and their now bewildered looks, while trying to respond silently in like-kind with a embarrassed/"kids say the darndest thing!" smile, I replied under my breath, while blocking out visions of my husband's face:
"It's... uh... Santa, Claus."
The very next day, I knew, in my bones, something had to be done. Something had to be done to prevent my Jewish kids from taking the Polar Express straight to Christmastown this year -- or any other, for that matter.
I began to assess my strategy. Christmas had Santa, who brought presents on his flying reindeer, ate milk and cookies and sprung his fat old ass through the chimney to get into kids' houses. I could deal with that. I'm creative, I told myself. I'm persuasive... when I want to be, at least. I was determined to spin Hanukah (the holiday celebrated by Jews around Christmastime that remembers and celebrates when the Jews reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and a one-day supply of oil that burned for 8 days) so hard that Judaism would start getting converts to the religion only because people wanted in on Hanukkah.
First, I needed an audience. I asked my son's preschool teacher if I could come in and do a presentation to his class on Hanukkah. She agreed and asked me the next day if I could go into the other classrooms and do the same presentation so everyone could participate. Why, yes, yes I could. This was how I was going to get out my message. The stage was set.
Next, I needed branding. Really more of a re-branding. Dreidels and latkes weren't cutting it and the competition was steep. I brainstormed my options. Another fictitious person seemed too similar and hard to measure up to: would "Hanukkah Isaac" or "Hanukkah Leah" be fat or skinny? Young or old? Confusingly, Hanukkah celebrates Judah and the Maccabees -- and my son's name is Judah. That wouldn't work -- even though I was going for a universal movement, I wanted results first at home. Another option was animals, but animals could be intimidating for kids, and bunnies and reindeers were already taken. How about fairies? They're friendly, likeable, cute and kids flock to them in masses. But I needed a unique fairy, a special sect of fairies, a JEWISH fairy... ahh yes, Maccabee fairies. Maccabee fairies who brought presents for Hanukkah. The characters were cast.
Now, I just needed a few details to backfill. My mother-in-law brought over a few presents that night for Hanukkah and I asked her to wrap them and set them out of the table. The next day, as Judah walked into the kitchen first thing in the morning, I exclaimed with shock and surprise:
"Oh my!! Look at those Hanukkah presents on the table everyone! The Maccabee fairies were here dropping off presents for HANUKKAH. Isn't that AMAZING?!!!!"
"Dad, can I have my yogurt?" said Judah, totally ignoring me.
Bypassing my initial wave of deflation I continued. "Judah, do you know how the Maccabee fairies got into our house to drop off your Hanukkah presents?"
"The door was unlocked?" (He is a very bright 3-year-old.)
"Nooooooo... the door is still locked. Go and check." He sat at the breakfast table, unmoved.
"Then how?" he asked.
Panicked, I hadn't thought of my next step. I eyed the kitchen and dining rooms. Fireplace? No. Kitchen hood? Does a hood connect with the exterior of the building? Crap. I was short for time and went with the next thing I laid eyes on.
"The Maccabee fairies came in through the air conditioning vents! Whhhhoooooaaaa, right? They must be small!"
"Uh-huh." Looking unimpressed.
"Let me see if I can find some evidence of them anywhere."
I opened the pantry. My mind immediately went to Elf on the Shelf. Damn you, Elf on the Shelf, I thought to myself, you and your smug little face, as my hands examined my options on each of the pantry shelves. I reached into a box of Fiber One and pulled out a handful of the cereal, reminiscent of larvae (that also helps promote healthy digestion) and scattered it on the floor.
"Judah, look!! It's Maccabee Fairy droppings! They were here!!"
Never one to sit out on an investigation, Judah jumped up and ran over to the pantry, shoving me aside.
"Fairy droppings? Fairy droppings? Fairy droppings!! Dad, look the Maccabee fairies were in here," picking up the droppings in his hand to show my husband. (Granted, my son doesn't know what droppings are or what fairies look like.)
Success! I was going to take it. My husband shot me a glance that read somewhere between pride and incredulous bewilderment. But he wanted in and chimed, "That's right, the Maccabee fairies came to our house to see if we were ready to celebrate Hanukkah so that we could remember when the oil burned for 8 days."
"Cuz were Jewish, right Dad?" said Judah.
"That's right," my husband said, beaming with a Jewish father's pride.
"Maybe we can leave the Maccabee fairies a treat so that when they come back through the air vents, they'll have something to nibble on. It a long journey from... uh... from uh... where they're from. What should we leave them to eat, Judah?" I asked, looking down at him.
"Christmas cookies!!!!" Judah yelled with a smile.
Even Christmas wasn't built in a day.
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This post was previously published on www.jessicashaool.com.