Missing the Magic

1208131417She 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.”

“How?”

“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.

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11 thoughts on “Missing the Magic

  1. Ryan Devine says:

    How DO we know we’re not living in someone else’s dream?!?

  2. kay says:

    Everyone deserves eggnog with their glitter glue! What a great piece of writing. Thanks for bringing all these ideas together . Love from the non-denominational pantheist in your life…

  3. I got here via my friend Dani. This is such a lovely essay, both deep and sparkling. When does the book come out?

  4. Emily says:

    Check out this idea.

  5. Brooke Edwards says:

    I just love this so much! xmas is a weird time for me because i was raised catholic but am an atheist and my 2 oldest are as well, but my 6 year-old has his father’s side of the family that is still very religious, even though he isn’t at all, and so i get torn at this time of year.
    we put up a tree just because we always have and i always feel a little stupid. we are never home on xmas. it is like it is a guilt ridden bad habit.
    but i agree about the magic. i need to find a way to celebrate the magic and love we have as mother and sons and make it our own.
    Thanks for the great post!

    • Kate Cohen says:

      Brooke, I think so many of us are making it up as we go along, and it’s exhausting. Take heart, though. I think as long as you’re actively making–not hiding from it, not phoning it in–it doesn’t matter exactly what the choice is. Choose something–change it next year if it doesn’t work–and you’re doing your job as a thinking parent. At least that’s what I tell myself!

  6. Kate,
    Great read.
    Because my wife still finds great joy in the holiday magic it is difficult to pull my children out of such a fantasy, but they are so young now, all I can do is be called Scrooge. I am thankful she is rather agnostic and leaves the Jesus out of it all. In fact the other day I explained to my 8 year old that Jesus’ birthday is really in the summer not the winter due to the sun worshipers.
    I have found some good ways to bring the family together that does not revolve around the holidays or religion. I am a big fan of live music, I take the family or just my daughter to music festivals all throughout the year. As I and they get older I think that will happen more and more. Live music is so good for the soul and the spirit. It also can bring us together more then any Christmas morning can.

  7. Ben Sher says:

    I am loving your blog! Even though Jason and I are pretty not religious in most of the official ways, we love the holidays for the reasons that you describe, so we’re raising the cats with all of them (They desecrated the menorah several times by knocking it over and eating the candles, and we feared that we’d adopted anti-semites. But then last night they tore down both of their stockings, so maybe their just ambivalent about mythology and consumerism). I like to think that the togetherness part of it, and the bonding over food, candles, carols, and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is as worthy as all the rest of it.

    Also, I totally identify with Jesse. I have since before he could speak!

    • Kate Cohen says:

      Thanks, Ben! And for the record, you have the most enviable authorial voice. I find myself reading happily about movies I’ve never seen and cats I don’t care anything about! Bravo.

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