Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Response to "Oy, Hark"

The witty and smart Slate writer/NPR contributor Dahlia Lithwick posted this article in SLATE about how Jewish parents guide their kids through the onslaught of Christmas TV specials geared to kids.

I just wanted to add my two cents, in part as a followup to my most recent post dealing with the Christmas/Hanukkah December dilemmas.

So far, my nearly four-year-olds have, as yet, viewed only"A Charlie Brown Christmas" and the newer, less inspired Charlie Brown special that's paired with it on the DVD.

Even though "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is not merely a secular Christmas special, but includes religious content, I think it's a great way to introduce the notion of Christmas, as celebrated in the U.S., to Jewish kids. It covers Christmas displays, letters to Santa, Christmas presents, Christmas trees, a school Christmas pageant, and in its most famous moment, it hits on the passage in the new testament telling of the coming birth of the baby Jesus and what all the fuss is about. It's a great conversation starter, even with nearly four-year-olds. Mine have already been told we don't celebrate Christmas, but it's fine to enjoy the lights everywhere (we call them holiday lights) and the music, some of which, like the soundtrack to "A Charlie Brown Christmas," is stellar.

When they're a year or so older, I think they'll be ready for "How The Grinch Stole Christmas," and I've got no problem with them watching it, not just because I watched it as a kid every year, but because it makes me cry. It's basically "A Christmas Carol," except the Grinch is Ebenezer Scrooge, and it has a similarly important and uplifting message about not getting wrapped up in your own problems and turning into a misanthrope, and how giving to others -- being a real mensch -- makes you AND them feel great. Sure, both tales are centered around Christmas, but I don't buy Dalia's assertion that a character like the Grinch is some sort of code for Grumpy Old Jewish Guy. (Though he does have a dog named Max, which is a kinda Jewish thing to name a pet -- but then I wouldn't be surprised if Dr. Seuss -- Theodore Geisel by birth -- was Jewish.)

I don't subscribe to a "no Santa" rule (as in, if the TV show doesn't mention Santa, it's okay for Jewish kids to watch). I have some fond memories of "The Year Without A Santa Claus," and agree that the Heat Miser/Snow Miser rivalry and musical numbers are worth watching. And I still know a lot of the words from the songs in "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town," which featured claymation Fred Astaire as its host, as well as the songs in "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer," which has a great message about accepting those who are different (no, I'm not talking about Yukon Cornelius, or the Abominable Snowman).

I figure, the kids are going to see Santa everywhere anyway -- drinking Coke on billboards, hanging out with kids on his lap at the mall -- so I might as well explain who the jolly fat guy in the red suit is. When they're old enough to "get" ironic humor, I might search Youtube for a Jon Lovitz sketch as "Hanukkah Harry," the Santa equivalent who brought Jewish kids slacks.

On the other hand, I won't go out of my way to let my kids watch "Frosty" or pretty much any of the other specials aside from "The Grinch" or "Rudolph" because in "Frosty" and lots of the others, the animation is crummy, the music bad, and the scripts suck. I have discerning Christmas special taste, and I'd prefer to expose the kids to quality Christmas entertainment than schlock.

I think the best antidote to all the kid-centered holiday specials isn't to hide from them, but to talk about them, watch them together, and do lots of fun things to celebrate Hanukkah. I think this year, at least, the kids they don't feel in the least bit deprived: there are special foods (chocolate Hanukkah gelt, potato latkes, and donuts), parties at their Jewish preschool, games of dreidel, crafts projects (they made a menorah at school out of egg cartons and popsicle sticks). We'll be lighting candles in the menorah at home, they've learned pretty much every known Hanukkah song at school, and they'll be getting plenty of presents. Not too shabby.

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