So we’re here in Provincetown for our annual post-Thanksgiving visit, and the holiday lights are out in full force. They are, for the most part, whimsical, tasteful beads of color as opposed to the overdone craziness I grew up with in the suburbs, and, set against the quiet New England perfection of saltbox houses and old-school storefronts, look gorgeous. Driving through town last night on the way home from the supermarket, 3-year-old Lula agreed, squealing with delight each time another glowing facade came into view.
“Are the lights for Thanksgiving, mama?” she asked.
Uh oh, I thought. Here comes Christmas. How to deal with the issue of Christmas?
Growing up, Christmas was always a source of tension in my Jewish household. My dad, who grew up in a north Jersey town rife with anti-Semitism, was especially annoyed and offended by the annual onslaught of light-up mangers and Christmas carols—especially when they were sung by me, gleefully, in school-choir holiday concerts. I could see him cringing in the audience at “O come let us adore him, Christ the lord!,” and even the eventual additions of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and “O Hanukkah” never made him feel much better. I loved the harmonies of Christmas carols, though, and was able to ignore the words. My Jewish identity was strong.
Still, I did broach the idea of having a Christmas tree once—a topic that was met with eye rolls and unwavering refusals that were elaborated upon at temple, when the rabbi sermonized us each year about so-called “Hanukkah bushes.” She’d talk about how the approaching holiday was not about presents and innocuous decorations, but the celebration of Christ the lord, with the Christmas tree even symbolizing the wooden cross to which Jesus was nailed. I got it, I did. And I quickly agreed. By junior high—right around the time of my Bat Mitzvah—I was done coveting Christmas altogether, and had even begun to share in my Dad’s annoyance, finally understanding why the holiday turned him off so. I was done with it forever. Or so I thought.
Fast forward a couple of decades to my first holiday season with my partner—a proud New York Jew who grew up with the dreaded Hanukkah bush, and Christmas presents, because her nonreligious mom delighted in the beauty of the holiday. “We totally knew that it was odd, because we had plenty of Jewish friends,” she recalls. “But we loved it. We did the whole kit and kaboodle—stockings, getting up early—and had absolutely no idea that it had anything to do with religion.” Her family still celebrates Christmas, and with all four of her siblings married to gentiles, it’s an important tradition as ever, especially for the kids. It took me a while to get used to “doing Christmas,” but, a decade in, I’ve grown to adore the tradition of everyone gathering for a warm and fuzzy celebration.
And so now. What to do about Lula?
“The lights are actually for Christmas,” I told her during our drive through town last night. And though she’s too young to have any idea about what religion means, I chose to say the next part anyway, because eventually it will seep in: “But we don’t celebrate Christmas, because we’re Jewish. We celebrate Hanukkah.”
She thought about this for a moment, then declared, “But I think I would like to celebrate it!”
And who wouldn’t?
We’ve decided, though, that Christmas will never wheedle its way into our home; we’re Jewish, Lula’s Jewish, and we do Hanukkah with panache. Still, how to explain this all to a 3-year-old? How to let her down easy when it comes to the holiday hubbub? What to do about Santa?
I took a deep breath, telling her, “We’ll celebrate with your cousins, and at Uncle George’s.”
“Okay,” she says. And we leave it at that.
I am ever grateful for for the 3-year-old mind, for which simple explanations are always best—even for the biggest questions.