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.
ktfran December 3, 2014, 2:07 pm
Good essay! I honestly can’t imagine what it’s like to grapple with these kind of decisions when raising a child. I will say though, as silly as it seems, I love the holidays and the magic that surrounds them. I love all the traditions and the togetherness. I love buying people gifts, sending cards, drinking spiked eggnog, eating way too many treats, snuggling on the couch to watch movies, decorating, everything really. I know that these kinds of things can happy at any time of the year, but the reason I think it’s so special this time of year is because it’s a lot of people at once joining together in the spirit of the season. I feel the same in September. It feels like September is a time for new beginnings, probably because that’s when school started.
Anyway, however you decide to celebrate or what traditions you want to start, I’m sure your son will love it no matter what.
As an aside, my sister’s new husband is Jewish and we’re Catholic. They’re raising their at this point hypothetical children Jewish, but they will celebrate with our family as well (just not the church stuff). And for the past several years, her husband (then boyfriend) has embraced our family celebrations. I absolutely love it.
As another aside, my sister and husband (married in October) got a lot of strange looks when people realized they were celebrating Thanksgiving separately. He with his mom in his hometown and her with us. It worked for them and it will probably change once kids are involved. Personally, I say do whatever works for you and your family!
Lyra December 3, 2014, 10:55 pm
Oh I’m with ktfran. I do love the holiday season, despite the fact that I have like, 5 Christmas concerts within 2 weeks of each other…the joys of teaching music! Haha.
I’m really excited to start some traditions with Navy Guy this year. My dad’s family always has a day where we all bake cookies together and we exchange them at the end. It’s insane because there’s like 50 people in one house, but it’s so fun. He’s coming to that for the first time this year. Then we’re also going to his niece’s Christmas pageant (she’s 4 so this is a pretty big deal). I’m also really really happy because we will be able to spend Christmas morning with my family. I always love that time with my parents and brother, and he’ll be joining us this year. 🙂 We also go to the Midnight Mass (starts at 10 pm, ends at midnight) on Christmas Eve and NG is coming to that too. I always play my flute with the choir because church music has been my “thing” for forever. For the first time I won’t be spending all of Christmas with my family — NG and I are going with his family later that day too.
It’s sure fun thinking of how I would want to raise hypothetical kids. It’s easy for me because I do identify with a religion strongly, but at the same time it’s interesting thinking of ways to incorporate that throughout the season.
Wendy_not_Wendy December 4, 2014, 10:03 am
I hate Santa. I grew up Catholic in a household that celebrated Christmas well (on both religious and secular levels) and I hate Santa.
My parents were like you: they never lied to us, and they still never have. They agreed that trying to convince kids that Santa was real was stupid. Why try to get your kids to believe something you know isn’t true? Why set them up for disillusionment? Mostly, I think they thought the whole subterfuge some people put into it was silly, which is mostly where I stand now.
I honestly didn’t think anyone believed in Santa until I was an adult and I heard from other adults who believed in Santa as children. It’s still kind of unfathomable to me. Sometimes I hear from Jewish people that they were told not to spoil Santa for the other kids by telling them he isn’t real, so they carefully kept the secret. Good god! No one ever told me to keep the secret, and if I’d ever come across another kid who believed in Santa Claus, I would have told them the truth without hesitation. (Don’t kids want the truth about things?)
People say they want to give their kids all that magic and mystery, but I really think I found Christmas magical and mysterious enough without lame-o Santa stuff, and that probably continued longer than for other kids because I was never disillusioned. Three, eight, twelve, we decorated a tree and lit candles and sang songs then got neat surprises at dawn on Christmas morning. Magical!
This isn’t to say Santa wasn’t part of our Christmas… our “main” present each year was unwrapped and was called a “Santa present” but there was no question but that our parents had bought them, and stuffed our stockings, too. We left out milk and cookies “for Santa”, choosing things we thought our mom and dad would like. Santa was exactly as real to us as fairies and ghosts. (Well, maybe ghosts are a little more real.)
If nothing else, two favorite books make it clear that Santa isn’t real: On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Superfudge by Judy Blume. And I’ve seen in the Amazon reviews that this totally freaks some parents out. Get a grip. If your kids are old enough to be reading/listening to those books, it’s way past time for them to know Santa isn’t real.
Lyra December 4, 2014, 7:11 pm
So my parents did the whole Santa thing, but I’m not sure when I realized that Santa wasn’t real. It wasn’t a big deal though, I do remember that. It was just a “well that makes sense” moment for me. It’s funny though because my brother and I still receive “Santa” gifts every Christmas and we’re 26 and 29…my parents don’t have grandkids yet, obviously haha. It’s funny and they just like to play it up like “ohhh look what we found lying around!”.
mylaray December 4, 2014, 5:16 pm
While I can’t relate to this (I am SO excited to do St. Nikolaus and Santa with a future kid), I really enjoyed this essay. We’ve been trying to nail down our own holiday traditions still. Last year we gave each other a small present for each day of December leading up to Christmas. It’s our anniversary month so it seems fitting. Right now, our big debate is real vs. fake tree.
Although we’re deeply Christian, we don’t want to raise our future child that way and plan on having a menorah and lighting the candles (sans gifts), letting them know about Eid, and other religious/cultural celebrations. I like the magic and idea in celebrating everything.
Portia December 5, 2014, 8:59 am
As a kid, my parents doesn’t really push anything religious on me and my sister. I think I was the one who asked if we could light the menorah and I definitely was the one who asked to go to Sunday school, because my friends went to Sunday school. I like that my parents didn’t try to push anything on us and let us choose our own level of involvement.
I think figuring out the Santa thing went hand in hand with figuring out the tooth fairy – I said something like, “The tooth fairy isn’t real, right?” And they said I was right. Not that my parents had ever told me Santa was real, but I knew my friends thought that, and all my parents said was don’t tell my friend. Did anyone ever believe the Easter bunny was real? Because that was never really a thing in my world. My hometown is also very Jewish, so things were generally less assumed Christian than elsewhere.