Maxine, my 5-year-old, was home sick last week, dripping snot and hacking like a two-pack-a-day smoker in Boca. I drugged her up, plunked her down on the couch, wrapped her in a blanket, and put on Nick Jr. (Don’t judge.) As I sat with my laptop in the next room, I could hear an endless succession of ho-ho-hos and jingling bells. Dora’s ice-pick voice stabbed my brain: Swiper! Give that present back to Santa, por favor!
Every show on children’s television seemed to feature chirpy efforts to rescue Santa or induce some animated sourpuss to feel the spirit of Christmas. Before long Maxine was pouting, “Where is Hanukkah? Why is there no Hanukkah on these shows?”
“Because we live in a country that is mostly Christian,” I told her. “Hanukkah isn’t a major holiday for us, anyway—Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot—those are a way bigger deal.” I started to explain that Hanukkah has turned into a whole megillah in the United States because of its proximity to Christmas, but Maxie just wanted to watch Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends.
Just as well. It’s not as if my answer was very satisfying.
That night, Maxie had some chicken soup, then she and her older sister Josie and I watched Glee. (I told you not to judge.) Maxie gazed wide-eyed as Britney the dumb cheerleader sat on Santa’s lap and told him that for Christmas, she wanted her wheelchair-using boyfriend Artie to walk. She yelled at the screen, “You can do it, Santa!” Josie and I gulped and looked at each other.
We sat Maxie down and explained that Santa was not real. But the kid insisted. “If you just believe in him,” she said, “he can help you.” I told her that Santa was an idea, a jolly symbol of kindness and harmony for our friends who are Christians, but not a real or powerful figure. She seemed unconvinced, and I went on thinking about the very different ways Jewish parents can address life during Christmastime:
Attitude No.1: The Blackout
Dora and Miss Spider are not invited into the home. Shalom Sesame is on an endless loop. There is no need for Hanukkah to compete with Christmas, because Christmas is not a factor. This attitude is hard to sustain halfway; it generally works better to commit year-round. Kids know when you’re uncomfortable, so suddenly insisting on pop-culture withdrawal the day after Thanksgiving is likely to bring up some thorny questions. In many ways it’s easier to pull the full Borough Park—keep the goyish world at a general remove year-round rather than trying to disengage from secular culture only in December.
Attitude No. 2: The Buy-In
Let’s get a Christmas tree! Christmas is really more about peace on earth and goodwill toward men than about religion! And the Christmas tree is really just a Hanukkah bush! And the kids look so cute on Santa’s lap! And even though he converted/even though she’s an atheist, Christmas is a lovely cultural tradition from my spouse’s childhood, and I don’t really feel right taking it away! It’s not like you can lock the real world out, you know?
Attitude No. 3: The Competitive Condescension
It’s way better to be Jewish because you get eight days of presents instead of one! Your friends are secretly really jealous! Jesus was a Jew! Don’t tell your classmates that Santa isn’t real because it will upset them, but you and I know he’s just a silly myth! (The same, of course, isn’t true of the tooth fairy. She’s legit.)
Attitude No. 4: The Dance of Ambivalence
Sure, we love to go look at the lights in the Dyker Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn and gape at Clopper the Donkey in the enormous Christmas display at the La Salette Shrine in Attleboro, Massachusetts. We’ll even help our friends trim their tree. But over and over we stress that it’s not our holiday. It’s normal to feel a little left out at Christmastime, but pretending it’s a secular holiday or puffing Hanukkah up to Christmas dimensions isn’t a solution. In fact, this is a good opportunity to talk about the commercialization of our culture. You know, Christmas isn’t a celebration of candy canes and thermonuclear reindeer and velvet bows and nebulous warm feelings. It’s the commemoration of the birth of a god. That’s a pretty big deal, and something that too many people forget. Some Christians are upset that Christmas has become this celebration of buying stuff and having parties rather than a serious opportunity to think about their faith, and—hey, wake up; I’m not done moralizing.
Becoming a parent is the impetus for a lot of us to examine some tangled and heretofore left-alone feelings about being a minority (albeit a minority that often doesn’t feel like a minority and often isn’t considered a minority) in a majority culture. Whether we marry Jews or non-Jews, many of us really don’t think through exactly how we’re going to do Judaism and secularism in the great big world. But when you have a kid, you have to make the call. Not deciding isn’t a decision.
As my (non-Jewish) friend Joe pointed out, this holiday is a fascinating opportunity to eat Chinese food and ponder a culture in which Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, and Barry Manilow can have top-selling Christmas albums and in which the biggest musical Christmas hits of all time were written by Jews. It’s the perfect chance to think about our strange middle ground as consummate insiders and consummate outsiders. Sure, government offices are closed on Christmas, but Hollywood’s biggest movies are all open, Hollywood being yet another thing our people run.
And you remember how that episode of Glee ended, right? Artie did walk, with the help of a robotic exoskeleton designed by Israeli scientists.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.