She asked again yesterday, when we came home from “The Magic of Christmas,” the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s annual spectacle of red, white, and sparkly.
“Why can’t we do Christmas?”
Lena’s my third child, but strangely the first to ask. My eldest accepted our Santa-lessness as a given, the way eldest children do; he wanted to please, not delve. My middle child isn’t bothered by being different, and relishes questions of a more philosophical nature (e.g. how do we know we’re not all in someone else’s dream?).
But Lena wants to understand everything about how this world works, is embarrassed by nothing, and never pretends to know stuff she doesn’t. A few days ago she asked my husband and me if we still had sex, and if so how often and when was the last time.
So “Why can’t we do Christmas?” should be easy, right?
It’s not. “Because we’re Jewish” would be the easy answer. Because we are Jewish, sort of. My husband and I were raised Jewish and we celebrate Hanukkah in a desultory fashion: a night here or there, a song and some candles, one good present for each child and a few that rate, “Um . . . thanks.”
But really, we’re atheists. We don’t believe in the Hanukkah myth or in Adonai any more than we believe in Jesus. Lena knows that.
She also knows that I celebrated Christmas as a child, and that even my parents—both Jews with Jewish parents—celebrated Christmas when they were little. Plus we just got home from watching her big brother carol his little heart out in a Santa hat, following the baton of a fellow latke eater, Maestro David Alan Miller of the ASO.
So why can’t we do Christmas?
Since its roots are equally fictional, why not choose the holiday with the great songs, the blinged-out tree, and the cute little baby? For that matter, you could do a lot worse than Jesus for mytho-historical figures to honor (Christopher Columbus, anyone?).
For me it has to do with propriety: I’m not going to the cast party if I didn’t work on the show. Or to a break-the-fast if I didn’t starve myself on Yom Kippur. In other words, I don’t go to church; I don’t believe Jesus is the son of God; in fact, I believe God is made up. Do I really deserve eggnog?
Lena, distracted by dinner, is still waiting for an answer. She had gotten dolled up for the concert in a white sweater dress with a pink snowflake pattern and matching scarf, pale pink tights, dark pink shoes. She needs at least four teeth for Christmas, and although I swear I gave her a brush for Hanukkah last year (“um . . . thanks”), she needs a good hair-brushing. But she is, in a word, irresistible.
“Well, maybe we could do it in our own way,” I said. “Have our own tradition.”
“But Grandpa”—my husband’s father—“would get mad.” Let’s just say Adam’s family definitely didn’t celebrate Christmas when he was growing up. Their living right up the road is largely why Hanukkah happens at our house at all.
“We wouldn’t have to tell Grandpa.”
“Mom”—she said, in the key of duh—“I think he would find out.”
“All the decorations!”
I see. This was the child who celebrates a new hobby with a fresh folder and an explosion of glitter glue; who insists on glamming up the wrapping on every present she gives; who made a giant International Pizza Day sign to bedazzle our one sincere family holiday. Of course she wants to deck the halls.
“I keep thinking,” she remarked wistfully, “about Granddaddy’s daddy and the footprints.” Apparently my father’s father, an exuberant Sephardic Jew, used to spread fake snow around their house in Montgomery, Alabama, into which he pressed “Santa’s” footprints.
This deeply impressed Lena, who is fascinated with Santa, and fixated on her position as one of the few kids in her third-grade class who know the truth. Later, as I was putting her to bed, she asked me one more question. “If I believed in Santa, would I have figured it out by now?”
You’ve probably figured out by now that she would. But I said, “Honey, even if we did do Christmas I couldn’t pretend there really was a Santa. You know I can’t stand to lie to you. That’s why we don’t do the Tooth Fairy. Santa would have to be more like a game we played together as a family.”
Then it hit me: that’s the magic she was missing: the shared activity, complete with over-the-top decorations and fake footprints. The feeling of a family working in concert.
This is one of the great gifts of holidays. When I realized I would be raising my kids as atheists, I imagined I could replace all that we would be missing. Find other ways to celebrate life, deal with death, express gratitude. It’s not easy, though. Religions have this stuff worked out, marked on the calendar, wrapped up in a bow. That’s why even nonbelievers often come back to church and synagogue when they have kids.
Since I can’t even lie to my kids about the Tooth Fairy, let alone matters of great import, I chose the hard way instead, the homemade way. And I had let things slide. Sure, we celebrate International Pizza Day in February (don’t you?). But it’s universally acknowledged that the darkest days of December cry out for a holiday. Heck, that’s why they picked it for Jesus’s birthday.
So I resolved that this Christmas, we would indeed start a new family tradition. Something—I don’t know what yet—with no lying, but with a little magic.
Obviously, we’re going to need some glitter glue.