Being Jewish in December
I took my youngest, G, to the doctor today, dragging almost-four-year-old S along for the ride. The doctor was trying to engage S by asking him if he's made his list for Santa yet. S didn't seem to know what the doctor was asking, but he also didn't know what to say in response. I quickly jumped in and told the doctor that S's birthday is coming up, which prompted the doctor, who apparently also has a December birthday, to commiserate about getting only half the gifts, because you get combined birthday and Christmas gifts. Poor S was still confused, especially when the doctor asked S when his birthday is, and S proudly exclaimed that it's today. The baby was unhappy (to put it mildly) about his doctor's visit, and I really just wanted to nurse the poor guy and get him home, so I wasn't in the mood to launch into an explanation about how we're Jewish, don't celebrate Christmas, and that today is S's birthday on the Hebrew calendar, which we also celebrate, even though his English birthday isn't for another two weeks. I let poor S be bewildered and the doctor think he was just absorbed in playing a game on the phone (which he was).
If my oldest, N, had been there, he would have proudly explained everything to the doctor. He's open that way. I guess as an adult, I've learned to be a little cautious about advertising our differences, sometimes because I'm just not in the mood for explanations of explanations, and other times because I just don't feel like being different. It's not fear, exactly, just burn-out. I've spent my life explaining to others about my religion and practice, and now I just want to do what I do and not open up the discussion constantly. I also didn't want the doctor to be embarrassed about having asked.
It's not that I don't want to educate, and it's certainly not that I don't want my kids to be proud of their heritage. I have no problem sitting down at an appropriate and convenient time and place and explaining anything anyone wants to know. It's mainly fatigue that prevents such discussion from happening more often.
I thought about what N would have done. "We don't celebrate Christmas," he would have said, just informing, not offensively at all. "We celebrate Hannukah." And as for the birthday question, "Today's his Hebrew birthday. His English birthday is on the 17th." He doesn't realize that not everybody understands when he pipes up with information like that. And he doesn't care. He's proud of who he is, of having the knowledge that he has, and of being different.
The other day, in the mall, we went past the area set up for pictures with Santa. A kindly-looking Santa, sitting in his chair with no children to pose with, waved merrily to S and G. I could see the wheels turning in S's head. "Huh?" he was probably thinking. He knows of Santa Claus. He'll point out a display and say, "That's Santa Claus!" But I don't think he really knows who Santa is, or what the significance is for children who do celebrate Christmas, or why someone would dress up like Santa and sit in the middle of the mall. Indeed, last year, my oldest proudly came home from kindergarten and informed us that he had told his friends that Santa isn't real. Fortunately, none of his friends' parents called to complain! And there was the memorable year in which a three-year-old N pointed excitedly to a big Santa decoration in Costco and exclaimed, "There's Samantha!" S, since he's not even in a daycare or preschool setting, has not been exposed to Christmas very much at all, except for the decorations all over the place, so I don't know what he thinks "Christmas" is all about.
I don't feel that my kids are "missing out" on anything by not celebrating Christmas. For one thing, it's hard to "miss" something you've never experienced. We don't do a "Hannukah bush," or put up lights or decorations that mimic those we see throughout our neighborhood. Those don't have anything to do with Hannukah and are just a way to make the Jewish kids feel less "left out." Instead, I hope that by instilling Jewish values in them year-round, and celebrating all of the Jewish holidays with them, they'll be proud and happy to be Jewish. They had a great time building and decorating a Sukkah in October, celebrating the Passover seder, and dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, and they will love the simple beauty of lighting the Hannukah menorah. If one is Jewish all year round, and not just in December, then there is plenty of celebrating to be done. And, hey, who wouldn't want to celebrate two birthdays every year?
Candles for the seventh night of Hannukah in ourLas Vegas hotel room last year.
I still worry about what will happen as my children mature and move away from my sphere of influence. I do hope that instilling a love of Judaism and Jewish practice in them when they are young will carry them forward. I hope N's enthusiasm will never wane. I hope that S won't lose that innocence. I hope I can take a lesson from N in unashamedly and unabashedly speaking up when someone asks if Santa is coming to our house, or if we have our tree yet.
For more thoughts on the winter holidays, I wrote this piece on the Christmas/Hannukah issue a couple of years ago in a now-defunct blog. I also wrote this one about celebrating Shabbat dinner on Christmas Eve that same year.