The following essay is by my friend and guest contributor, Rachel Stolzman.
Last year, my husband, Bill, and I were unprepared for the holidays with our then three year-old son, Enrico — unprepared in the ritual and lore department. We could’t decide which holiday rites or biblical stories to go with and therefore my kid led the way. I’m Jewish and my husband was raised with no religion by people from Catholic countries. (He does not allow me to refer to him as Catholic.). We are both Nothing when it comes to religious observance. Except when I’m not. I was raised cultural Jewish lite. No Hebrew school, no bat mitzvah, no temple even, but a Maxwell House haggadah Passover seder every year, and eight wrapped “presents” for each night of Hannukah, which were a pair of socks, a pack of pencils, stationary, maybe one something special.
It wasn’t until mid-Hannukah last year that I suddenly had a need to light the menorah, say the prayer (which I know because I attended two hundred bar mitzvahs from age 12-14) and take a picture of our son in front of the glowing candles. So, without forethought or a conversation with Bill, we were suddenly lighting the menorah one chilly December night.
“Tell him what it means,” Bill said.
“Is it a birthday?” Enrico shouted.
Here’s where I went off the rails. “Yes, it’s a birthday. It’s called Hannukah. It’s a Jewish holiday.”
“Can I blow out the candles?”
Good question, I thought. “No!” I shouted. Then with forced calmness, “We just let these candles burn until they go out. Let’s take a picture!”
We were even less prepared for Enrico’s questions about Christmas a few weeks later. I was walking home from pre-school with him and he asked, “Is Santa coming to our house for Christmas?”
“Yeessss,” I stammered, even though I’m pretty sure Bill and I actually did talk about this one, and it was supposed to be no.
Here’s the deal with Santa. We haven’t lied to Enrico about anything. When we’re going to a movie and leaving him with a sitter, if he asks we tell him we’re going to a movie. Even though he wants to go to movies. When he’s getting a shot, we tell him he’s getting one and that it will hurt. So was I really going to begin lying with Santa, when I didn’t have, nor miss, that bit of magical thinking in my own childhood?
“How does he get in, through the chimney?”
My panicked brain started remembering the canned answers I had worked on: “Santa is a character in a book,” and “Some people believe in Santa.” These are the same lines I’ll say about God in a couple years.
“Will he bring me a present?”
“Your family and friends will give you presents. I don’t know if Santa will.” I was getting back on firmer ground here. This is what Bill and I had discussed.
Well this year Enrico is four, which is quite a bit more aware than three, and we’re trying to be a bit more mindful and meaningful at home. We’re trying to get our stories and even our desires straight too. I think we have way more time for the whole, “I’m Jewish, you’re half Jewish and Is There A God?” talk. I still have no idea what we’ll say when we get there, but for now I’m just thinking of our family holiday rituals (ritual is actually my favorite part about religion and the one thing I think I’m missing as a secularist).
Hannukah is first up. Recently, I told Bill that I thought I’d like to light the menorah one or two times, give Enrico a small present and tell him there’s a story in a book about some people who were going on a trip and they thought they only had lamp oil for one night and it lasted for eight nights! This is like when you go camping for a week and on the second night your flashlight battery dies, and lo and behold, the miracle of motherhood, mom brought extra batteries!
Bill said, “Why do it half-way?” I was actually thinking quarter-way. “Why not light the menorah every night?” He asked.
“Well,” I offered, “I doubt we’d be able to do that.”
Bill didn’t need to point out how silly and ambivalent this comment was. Okay, I am capable of doing something eight nights in a row. I think.
Christmas rituals? That’s easy. We choose and carry home a sweet-smelling live Christmas tree. We make an evening of decorating the tree with ornaments we’ve been collecting for the last four years. Yep, pre-Enrico there was no tree. On Christmas morning we give each other a small number of presents and open the gifts that arrived in the mail and have been waiting under the tree. We have a nice breakfast. We’re leisurely. We see friends. We have always told Enrico that Christmas is not only about getting presents but also about giving and being with your family. (Which Bill is also suggesting we say about Hannukah, instead of the batteries story.) The only problem I can foresee is the Santa story.
Bill and I initially agreed that we will say some people believe Santa is real. But bobody really knows for sure! I jumped in with, “We’ll give him one present that we say is from Santa.” I was thinking, this is a wrap. But Bill and I simultaneously saw the problem with this. We hand him the present from Santa and then there it is, proof there is a Santa. Okay, so no present from Santa. And why? Maybe we’ll say Prospect Heights isn’t zoned for reindeer. Or there’s no parking. Or our house is very safe and bearded men don’t break in and leave unmarked packages.
There’s a good reason this one isn’t figured out yet. Rituals alone, like lighting menorahs and hanging wooden whale ornaments are easily adoptable annual festivities, that no matter if I’ve done them before are doing something, something that inherently feels real and happy to me. But whenever I’ve heard someone describe the excitement of anticipating Santa and the devastation of learning he wasn’t real, I draw a huge blank. There were no fights in my mostly Jewish school in second grade when some kids with older siblings said there was no Santa. I just don’t remember ever thinking of Santa or caring that there was no Christmas in my house. But… I’m not opposed to magical thinking, and these are Enrico’s years for it. And Bill did grow up with that particular magical thinking. Santa was real and did come to Bill’s house. Maybe this year, we both need to say we’re going all the way. We’re lighting the menorah eight nights, and wrapping a present from Santa and saying, “Yes, he will come to our house, kid, and nobody knows what Santa will bring.”
Magical thinking, after all, doesn’t have to be reserved for four-year-olds.
Rachel Stolzman is the author of the novel, The Sign for Drowning, which was published by Trumpeter in 2008. She is currently working on her next novel. Rachel regularly writes about what she is reading and writing at www.rachelstolzman.wordpress.com.