|M and the kids tracking each others footprints in the snow on Thanksgiving|
For Thanksgivukkuh last year, I bought my kids a wonderful book- "Rivka's First Thanksgiving." In the book, a little girl in Brooklyn learns about Thanksgiving, and convinces her orthodox Lubovitch community to celebrate the holiday.
Because as first generation immigrants to America, the story of being welcomed in and protected by a new community spoke to her.
And being immigrants fleeing religious persecution in Europe, the story spoke to her more still.
In many ways, Thanksgiving is like American Passover. You gather with your family to recreate a meal, a meal where peoples of different backgrounds came together to celebrate that they would survive. Squanto was like Moses to the Pilgrims, and Moses would have been a stranger to the Jewish slaves.
It's a lot like Passover, really. Almost uncannily. Except instead of an afikomen, you get pie for dessert.
I love Thanksgiving.
For many people, Christmas is the only thing they seem to like about Thanksgiving. For many people, Thanksgiving is wonderful because it gives them permission to stop holding back in their Christmas zeal, and the minute the table is cleared after dinner it's time to ring those sleigh bells and move onward towards the real winter holiday.
Only the thing is, unlike Thanksgiving, not all Americans recognize Christmas.
Thanksgiving is wonderful to me in that it is so comprehensively American. From Turkey tamales to three sisters stew, from pumpkin crumble to persimmon pie, every corner of America is filled with people celebrating what might be a largely fictional story, but is a fundamentally hopeful one.
Christmas? Not so much.
For me, as for most non-Christian Americans, Christmas is an annual giant, exclusive party that seems to grow by a day or so every year.
And I had no idea how much more lonely it would be for me once I had interfaith children.
As you probably know, M borders on agnostic and I dabble with atheism. But we appreciate the traditions and familiarity of our respective faiths.
|The historically Jewish city of Chefchaouen in Morocco-|
where the Jews who built it so strongly identified with their heritage that they painted the city blue.
And in a way, I think that is what has allowed us to survive this long. As isolated strangers in non-Jewish communities, we have always excluded ourselves. Like Tevya says of the Cossacks in Anatevka, "We don't bother them, and so far, they don't bother us." Until of course, the Czar decided some bothering was due.
We carved our niches out of the communities we wandered into, and although we lived side by side, we lived separately.
Not so, in 20th and 21st century America. We managed to make ourselves seen, and heard, and somehow welcomed for the most part. We accepted the mantle of "whiteness" the civil rights movement offered us. We started seeing ourselves as Americans as well as Jews. Something we certainly never did in Russia or Morocco.
|The blue streets of Chefchaouen|
And the fact is, to be so thoroughly surrounded by a single holiday that you do not celebrate is smothering. To be vilified as being a "Scrooge" or a "Humbug" for feeling no love for a holiday that means nothing to you is a form of duress. It is a culture that says, "Pretend you believe this, or you are not one of us."
For most of my life, that feeling of isolation and rejection for not trimming trees or writing letters to Santa was something that felt natural to me. That felt like as much a part of my heritage as the bland, mindless way the Shabbat bruchot came to my lips as a child waiting for Friday night dinner.
It is not the same now. Now, I have children. Children who love Christmas, and whose love of Christmas hurts me.
I feel petty and unkind and shallow saying so, but it's true. That I am and must be complicit in their affection for Christmas only makes it worse.
I have little love for Jesus, in whose name countless atrocities have been committed against my ancestors. In whose name, as a child, my best friend sobbed and begged me to convert, because she didn't want to go to Heaven if she knew I was going to Hell. I have made my peace with Jesus, for the most part, who I think was probably a man trying to do some good, if he existed, which I can never know.
But I don't understand what American culture has done to his birthday. And in his name.
I don't understand how Santa Claus came to be, or why I must lie to my children, in however sheltered terms, rather than saying what I know is true. But I continue to lie to them. I tell them that he is real to them, because they have somebody who loves them and wants to make him real. The way fairies are real to some people, when somebody loves them and wants to make fairies real to them.
It's a pretty lie. It's one that I had hoped wouldn't hurt me to tell. But it does. Because I cannot make Santa real. I can only drive this wedge further between my children and myself, isolating myself more and more from their understanding of the world and their understanding of mine.
|Our friends, Santa and Mrs. Claus with their favorite elf, visiting our children several Christmases ago.|
Friends who love our kids enough to make Santa real for them.
Part of what we choose is this otherness, and I wonder if my sister wasn't really right when she warned me about having children with a Lutheran.
"Can your children really be Jewish, if they grow up in a house that has a Christmas tree?"
I said I didn't care, but I know now that I do. I care very much. I want them to feel what I feel about my heritage, about my ancestry and my history. Their ancestry and history.
I want them to learn that part of being Jewish is being isolated from the larger community. That as welcome as we may think we are, we are always waiting for the tides to turn. I want them to understand that on Thanksgiving we are all American, and we are proud, and we are humble, and we are unified. But on Passover we remember that in every generation there comes somebody who would try to destroy us. That in every generation there is a genocide, and we have made it to this day by seeing the tides when they turn, and remembering who we are and where we came from.
When, in October, my children squeal with delight at the sight of Christmas lights in a store, I feel more lonely than ever in my life. My children, these people I made who shared my blood and my body, and will always share my history and my life, my children have been anxious for Christmas to come since that first sparkly snowman made his appearance on the Costco floor.
They gush about Christmas. They tell me what they want, they tell me they want to see Santa, they tell me they want to make Christmas cards and have Christmas stockings and a Christmas tree.
As they have had every year.
For them it's an afterthought. Something nice that will happen as well as Christmas. Not their isolated holiday warmth, not the oasis of familiarity in a Christmas dessert, where costume clad volunteers on the public train stare with fear in their eyes when someone responds to their, "Merry Christmas!" with "Chag samayach to you!"
They learn that fear young. "Did you know?" an eight year old friend asked me, her face pale and numb, as we arranged Barbie shoe filled traps for each other on her bedroom floor, a la Home Alone, by the light of the garlands strung down her bannister. I was too ashamed to speak, now part of the mechanism that had built and shattered what would become a formative childhood experience.
It wasn't that I didn't believe, it's that I knew the truth. And the truth was my parents kindly but sadly explaining that I should not tell other children the truth. That I must distance myself to protect them. That my distance was essential to their happiness.
As a child, I resented Christmas, and I could not escape it. I could not escape singing Christmas songs at my public school. I could not escape the constant talk of what Santa would bring to other children, and not to me. I could not escape the ornaments and tinsel in every grocery store, on the light poles downtown, on the bulletin board outside the Principal's office. I could not escape the trees, covered in candy canes or tiny toys, standing resplendent in all my friends' homes- shrinelike on their velvet skirts, revered in their untouchable beauty. I could not escape the Christmas stories on my television, every beloved character celebrating the very holiday that excluded me, until I couldn't bear any longer to watch even the Muppets imply that I, like Scrooge, was a "humbug."
For me, Channukah became meaningful not because of the story, a military holiday as opposed to a religious one. For me, Channukah was meaningful because after all the loneliness and sadness of my friends slowly distancing themselves from me, I found myself surrounded by the familiar songs and faces and foods of my people. My holiday. My little light in the winter dark.
Now, as always, my friends are beginning to shrink away. Earlier and earlier every year, with facebook quizzes about "Holiday Movies" based on "It's A Wonderful Life" and "Miracle of 34th Street," as though by erasing the word "Christmas" from their enthusiasm I can join in, I can pretend that my own experience includes Santa Claus and Christmas Miracles, as if just by being American I must be part of this, as though despite making myself visible as someone "other," I am at fault for neglecting my cultural duty to watch the Greatest (Christmas) Films Of All Time.
I find myself less patient with my inability to participate. I find myself feeling like a liar more and more, even as I tell my children that Santa is only real if somebody makes him real for you.
"I can't make Santa real for you," I say, and this is also a lie. I am complicit. I am the one who fills the stockings when their backs are turned. I am the one who lies by omission, by saying that Santa is real for anyone, ever, when Santa is a fiction who brings comfort to the majority of our neighbors, but only ever hurt me. Only ever guilted me into prolonging the moment when my friends would be crushed by the destruction of their happy fantasies.
The truth is that I don't want my kids to believe in Santa. Not because I don't think they can't really be Jewish on a fundamental level if they have a Christmas tree in the house. I think that it's hard to really empathize, to really understand who their ancestors were and what they faced if they don't understand what it is to be other. To be excluded and to understand that purposeful exclusion is a threat, but at the same time that self imposed exclusion can be safety.
|Jewish men praying under guard in a Polish shtetl in 1940|
"Is Christmas soon?" they asked, eagerly.
"No, first comes Thanksgiving. And then Channukah," I said.
"So why are there Christmas trees?"
It was a simple question, and I answered it simply.
"What's Christmas Creep?"
"Christmas Creep is when people are so excited about Christmas, they forget there are other holidays that other people celebrate. Including Thanksgiving, which is next."
"Why do they forget there are other holidays?"
"Because they don't need to remember, sweetie," I said, sighing, pushing my cart into the cold parking lot. Pushing it past other carts laden with trees and lawn reindeer and mountains of tinsel.
They don't need to remember, but I do. Jews do. "Never forget," and all of that.
The truth is that Christmas Creep isn't just about forgetting other holidays, it's about forgetting other people. And worse than that, Christmas Creep is about forgetting Christmas as well.
My husband, the Lutheran, hates Christmas Creep more than I do. For me, it's a familiar angst. For him? It's a reminder of what is constantly being lost for people who DO celebrate that particular holiday.
M tells me that he didn't really learn what Christmas was about until he was in college. An adult. Until he left home, Christmas was about getting. Now, he says, Christmas is about family, and love. Seeing his cousins in Minnesota, who he sees so painfully rarely. Seeing his aunts and uncles and remaining grandparents. Meeting babies and seeing how absurdly much children have grown. Physically being with the people you love.
But it's hard to explain that to a child through the haze of tinsel and and the twinkling of fairy lights.
|Just under half of M's family (half of them)- an eight hour drive away|
Neither of us are likely to jump onto the Holiday Fever bandwagon before we've thoroughly enjoyed our Thanksgiving weekends. Neither of us are eager to give up time with our families to buy things we don't necessarily need for a holiday we feel, in the case of both Christmas and Channukah, shouldn't be about presents anyway.
Despite this, M loves Christmas. He loves putting on his cheezy Christmas sweater, drinking quarts of eggnog with a grin on his face, hanging a wreath on our front door. He loves the lights and the stockings, the tree and A Muppet Christmas Carol. He loves gingerbread houses and red and green m&ms on Christmas morning.
I've always known Christmas was important to M, and it never bothered me. It still doesn't. I love seeing him happy, and I love making him happy. I go to church every year with his parents, smile and shake hands with the pastor, sing along through all the carols. The first date I ever took him on was after he came back from spending Christmas with his family. I drove him up to Sauganash, and parked the car, and walked hand in hand with him in the snow through a magical world of Christmas lights brighter and more complex than any in the town where I grew up.
And it was beautiful and romantic, even to me, somebody who doesn't care about Christmas.
I understand that there is something special about Christmas for people who do care, and part of me has always been dedicated to helping M create that magic with his children. Who also happen to be my children.
And M has been equally understanding when it comes to my need to pass along traditions to my children. He has agreed with me on the importance of a Jewish preschool, not for religious indoctrination, but for the introduction of a long and complex history we both want them to know. He has been at every family seder, cracking jokes about gefilte fish and still eating it. He has learned the Shabbat bruchot, and sings them with more enthusiasm than I did at our children's age. And it has also, in a way, pained him. And I know that.
Some of M's relatives like to wear shirts with slogans like, "Put the Christ back in Christmas." And both of us are all for that. Because it's honest. Because Christmas isn't "the reason for the season," but Jesus is the fundamental reason for Christmas. And the more we as a society get back to remembering that, the less Christmas Creep we'll have. The less we'll be constantly bombarded by messages to buy buy buy buy buy, and the less I will feel like I have to protect my children, not just from losing their sense of their cultural identity, but from losing ANY sense of cultural identity.
|M and the girls watching football before Thanksgiving dinner, while Grandmommy and I cook and chat,|
and my sister and Poppa take turns napping away what ails them
He struggles with putting to words what his culture is, besides being White America. He is like a fish who cannot see the water, having lived it and breathed it beyond the limits of his own existence. And he is learning, but it does not help him define it.
It does not help him explain to his children, my children, what is and is not meaningful or important, what is or is not a privilege or an identity, what is and is not good or bad or empty fluff.
Nobody seems to believe that Christmas is about presents except children. But they're picking it up somewhere.
So what is it? Is it about Jesus? Is it about family, about sharing the warmth of love and joy and familiarity in the coldest months? Or is it about casting divisions between "us" and "them"?
I don't know. I may never know. I don't even know that I want to know. Knowing the meaning of Christmas might be a little too close for comfort to me. Having a true understanding of what Christmas is and what it means puts me so much closer to its epicenter than merely hanging stockings over my mantle, and lying to my children about the reality of fictional characters who brings gifts bought with my energy, my money, and my love.
I don't want to sympathize with Christmas Creep, because I want to be able to focus on the things that matter to me, and I cannot emphasize enough- that is not Christmas.
To me, Thanksgiving opens the winter, with welcoming arms and the promise that the winter will pass, that I will spend cold months ahead in the warm embrace of my friends and family, that the food will be abundant and the cheer even more so, despite the short days and the bitter cold.
To me, Channukah is a week when I reflect on winters past. When I gather with my family and share stories so old they've become legend; from the revolt of the Maccabees to one time my four year old sister forgot her lines in our family Channukah play and announced to our "audience" that her song was rewinding.
To me, Passover is about winter ending and spring beginning, with a warning. We survived another winter. Another spring has come. And again we must remember that next year might be different.
And in the middle there lies Christmas.
I look forward to the days spent in Minnesota, surrounded by M's family, who have become my family. I look forward to hugs and cookies and catching up on news. I look forward to laughing at M's aunt's inappropriate jokes, and drinking beers with his cousin on the farm. I look forward to seeing my children get to know their cousins, in whatever limited capacity they can with so little exposure to each other, and hoping that someday they will feel the bond of love and family for these people who share their history, their heritage, their genes, and their traditions.
|Chicago's Sauganash neighborhood, where I took M for our first New Year's Eve together. To look at the Christmas lights.|
I do not look forward to the endless Christmas trees on the street and non-stop Christmas Pop on the radio. I do not look forward to people I love asking my children about Santa, and building my complicity every time I keep my mouth closed in a smile.
I cannot look forward to Christmas, because before I am even ready to approach it, it's here. Christmas Creeping its way under my skin and fatiguing me before I can acknowledge it. By the time Thanksgiving groceries are bought, I am done with Christmas.
But I'm not done. I'm never done. I'm an American citizen, and each year Christmas is more American than apple pie for Thanksgiving dessert.
And now I am less done than ever, because each day my children see a new toy in a catalogue, and they want Santa to bring it to them, so I set them to the task of simply circling toys I know I have no intention of buying.
That I neither want to buy nor can afford.
That are as much the "reason for the season" as the yet unpacked suitcases from our Thanksgiving trip littering the foyer.
I am teaching them the importance of family, and of sharing traditions with family, even if that isn't the lessons they learn about Christmas.
I am teaching them the very things about Christmas I despise each time I offer a Santa platitude. Yet I offer Santa platitudes, despite each word breaking my heart as it tears my children farther from me.
As my Lutheran husband would smile and shrug and say, "Diyenu."
|M and RH last Passover|
If I can't embrace my otherness, what is left of my heritage for me to hang onto?
Is a Jew without her tribe a Jew any longer? Or am I something else? Something lost, and sad, grasping for an identity that can never be this version of American which only comes when the days shorten; or something hard, and cold, unable to find the warmth of any tradition when it's all obscured by the never ending "Holiday Sale" that sucks the meaning out of anything joyful?
If not even my children understand what it is to wander, but not be lost in the fold of their family, I am utterly alone.
And there will be precious little left to be thankful for in Novembers to come.
I will be a child again, standing back from a tree covered in toys I cannot touch, resenting it for bringing me no joy when the children around me gasp in awe.
Only those are my children.
And if they cannot know what it is to stand outside of Christmas and never come close enough to touch it, I fear they can never know me. And without my children to keep me warm, to stand by my side and hold my hands, it is a long, cold winter indeed.
Or, it's not.
Or, it's exactly what I agreed to a decade ago, when I felt myself falling in love with a man I took to look at Christmas lights for New Year's Eve. When I braced myself to feel exasperation and frustration on a cold walk on the last day of the year, and instead found pure delight and peace by looking at the smile on his face as he took in the displays.
I watched him grinning at the lights, and he said, "Thank you."
Because he knew I hadn't expected to go on that date to make me happy, but had done it for him. And he knew that seeing him happy was all I wanted in the first place, and getting that, I was also happy.
He and I agree that the best part of any gift giving holiday, Christmas or Channukah or any old birthday, is the moment when somebody you love opens the gifts and their face lights up. They are transported in their joy, and it is that joy, not the contents of the box, that you have given them.
It's a joy that knows how much you care. A joy that knows how deeply you love.
I love my children. I want them to experience joys I never did.
|Our menorah, over our stockings and nativity scene|
It is a cost I accepted long before I had to pay. I still accept it. I am still learning to love Christmas, not for what it means but for what comes from it. Time with a family that is now my family, the beautiful joy of people whose love means everything to me, pretty lights in a dark, quiet street.
But I can only stretch so far.
The growing "season" overwhelms everything, including perspective.
I do have to remember- I do not have the luxury of forgetting other holidays, other people.
I see the water.