Saturday, December 13, 2008

Can I Interest You In Hanukkah?

Some of you make recognize the title of this post as taken from the ditty Jon Stewart sings to Stephen Colbert in the recent special, A COLBERT CHRISTMAS, on Comedy Central. The conceit of the special is that Colbert is trapped in his mountain cabin (there's a bear outside) and can't get to his NY studio to tape his holiday special, but his friends keep dropping by. Stewart tries to sell Colbert on celebrating Hanukkah instead of Christmas (you can read the lyrics here or watch the clip here.)

Thing 1 and Thing 2 are on the verge of turning 4 as Hannukah and Christmas approach, and it's the first year the two holidays are really registering in a conscious way. Because they go to a Jewish preschool, they've already committed "The Dreidel Song" and "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah" to memory. They know all about lighting the menorah, eating latkes and Hanukkah gelt, and though they're a bit hazy on the story behind it all, they have no trouble understanding that presents are involved. As for Christmas, though they've been told that we don't celebrate it, but many of our friends do. (My pal Gregory K. has written a short but delightful poem on his blog about those who double-dip, celebrating both holidays). The kids are not really sure what Christmas is, even though they know it's coming and that a fat bearded man in a red suit is involved. Every night when we drive home from preschool in the fading dusk or early dark, they delight in viewing holiday lights and Christmas trees. I've played them Alvin and the Chipmunks' "Christmas Song" ad nauseum (they never seem to tire of the high-pitched voices and my own attempts to sing along with the line about the hula-hoop). The secular parts of the Christmas holiday are inescapable. But as yet, they have no clue about the birth of a Baby Jesus.

I haven't brought Jesus up yet because it's a whole lot of religious weight, historical baggage, and a very serious story to load on almost-four-year-olds, let alone the idea of one December holiday being ours and the other being someone else's. Their grasp of their own "tribe's" holiday story -- the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil burning for eight nights in the temple -- is only slightly less incomplete than my own. I never went to Hebrew school and my parents left much of traditional Judaism out of my Jewish cultural/historical education. I can tell you the story of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF with much more detail and accuracy than the story of the Maccabbees. I identify as a Jew by culture and history and even values way more than I do through the specifics of the Torah, and honestly will need to bone up before teaching its most famous tales.

But I do enjoy a good Hanukkah celebration, and I want the kids to also. It's just that trying to explain and keep separate one holiday and the other is a bit daunting when Christmas is ubiquitous, surrounding us everywhere with its decorations and sounds and trappings. I've never seen anything wrong with enjoying those trappings: holiday lights are beautiful, and a lot of the music, secular AND religious, is delightful and lovely. My own parents took us out on Christmas Eve to visit the tree at New York's Rockefeller Center (breathtaking every year) and the wondrous mechanical windows of Lord & Taylor's on Fifth Avenue. We even took to exchanging our Hanukkah gifts on Christmas, especially once I was in college, because Christmas break was when everybody was home. But we always knew the religious aspects of Christmas were for Christians. Jesus, while a nice Jewish boy with a lot of great things to say about loving one another, was not our savior. We didn't have one, and didn't see the lack of one as anything, well, lacking. The idea of a Messiah showing up some day was something to which my parents never subscribed, and would've probably seen as magical thinking, at best. So we enjoyed the trappings of the Christmas season, and ignored the rest.

As typical Upper West Side of NY Jews, our big Christmas day tradition consisted of going to a movie and eating Chinese food. I understand transplanted NY Jews now living in the Bay Area have the option of attending an official "Kung-Pao Christmas," which involves Chinese food and Jewish stand-up comics. These are traditions I can get behind. I hope to get the kids into the Chinese food and movies on Christmas eventually. (The first time we attempted to take them to Chinese food on Christmas, it seemed every Jew on the West Side of Los Angeles had shown up at the same restaurant.)

As for Christmas, I suppose I'm already passing on to the the kids the idea of sharing in the displays and the music, the Christmas movies. (They fell asleep tonight to the soundtrack from "A Charlie Brown Christmas," worshiping at the altar of jazz great Vince Guaraldi and his soothing cool jazz piano.) But I feel a more urgent sense than my parents ever imparted to emphasize that we've got our own holiday this time of year. I don't mean to imply there's some kind of equivalence. But I do want them to know that we're different from the majority in some ways, and that's okay, in fact reason for celebration. Because here in the U.S., church does remain officially separate from state, and people here are free to practice whatever religion they choose, or none at all. Celebrating Hanukkah in the midst of Christmas hoopla seems to me a way to celebrate a great American tradition of embracing everyone by making a place for all. It's a way to reinforce the value of diversity, to demonstrate that in difference there can be strength. And at the same time, to show that both holidays have come to mean spending time with family and friends, and celebrating miracles legendary and miracles that we can experience daily but too often take for granted, one of which is that we live in a place where freedom -- something the Maccabees valued -- is ours to cherish.

I just hope the kids don't mind when they realize eight days of presents means, to quote Jon Stewart's line from Colbert's song, "one nice one, then a week of dreck."

1 comment:

William V. Madison said...

I'm betting that a majority of not-quite four-year-olds from Christian-background families haven't got much firmer a grasp on the identity and nature of Jesus than Things 1 & 2 do. Their theological studies seem to be at an acceptable level, and I applaud them and you. Valuing other people's traditions, celebrating one's own, and getting the most out of the holidays are admirable goals.

And you can take comfort in the knowledge that you are doing all you can to make certain they don't convert, later in life. With sufficient repetitions, the Chipmunks' Christmas carols could drive Pat Robertson to apostasy. (Hey, come to think of it, maybe we should try that.)