My kid was caught in the middle of the Christmukkah debate — only the debate was within himself.
We were driving down the road in my black minivan. My son was quietly sitting, staring out the window. Through my rearview mirror, I saw him shut his eyes and say it! It was said in the most innocent way that only a child could say it, but they were simply not the words I wanted to hear.
He said, “Dear God: Can I please have a Christmas tree?” Oh, an arrow through my heart. He might as well have folded his cute little hands into the prayer pose as he said it!
Believe me, his life began Jewishly — i.e., the bris with the whole family. (OK, it didn’t include mine, which is not Jewish, but my dad happily wore a kippah and my nieces held the challah as we recited the ha-motzi.) So what went so terribly wrong? My son Asher (see, I even gave him a Hebrew name!) is now 5 years old. This is the fourth official “December dilemma” in our Jewish house.
We have recently been having talks about why we don’t celebrate Christmas in our home. The standard rundown goes like this: “We are Jewish, and Jews don’t have Christmas trees.” Well, we all know that one of those statements isn’t necessarily true. OK, we changed it to: “We don’t have a tree because we are so lucky to have Hanukkah.” Hey, we get to light the menorah and open gifts for eight nights, not just one. With young kids, go straight to the gifts — that seems to keep them off the subject (at least for a while, anyway).
I also told him that Hanukkah is about religious freedom. I explained how the Maccabees fought for all of us to continue to be Jewish, and we honor them by lighting the menorah and not having a Christmas tree in our house. I explained the miracle of the oil, which is not nearly as exciting as the miracle of a fat man coming down your chimney with a big bag of gifts. None of these explanations seemed sufficient for my little boy, who just wants to hang decorations on a Douglas fir.
I know what you are thinking: “Why is this such a big deal? It was just a little prayer to God.” You must understand that I have been working on my son’s Jewish identity since before he was born. I am a Jew by choice, and a psychologist. (I know: My poor Jewish husband never stood a chance.) My doctoral dissertation was entitled “Jewish Identity Development in Individuals Who Are Jews by Choice.” You see, my interest is not simply emotional, it is also academic.
Asher’s Jewish identity would be uniquely created because of his parents’ circumstances: One is a born Jew, and one converted to Judaism. I want him to have a strong sense of being Jewish — culturally, intellectually and spiritually. I don’t think I am asking too much. I guess I have always been an overachiever.
To further complicate the story and thoroughly confuse my 5-year-old son, he and I were on our way to volunteer at a church to help them get ready for a big Christmas dinner that our synagogue runs every year. I told him how families who don’t have a lot of things they need will be coming and getting great big “goodie bags” filled with shampoo, toothbrushes and socks, and that the kids will get toys. Asher’s only response after his prayer for the tree was this: “Mom, it’s good they won’t be giving the kids socks and toothbrushes, because I sure wouldn’t want that for Hanukkah.”
As Asher and I walked into the church hand-in-hand, the other volunteers were pulling out boxes of ornaments and strings of lights in the corner, where a naked Christmas tree sat waiting to be dressed up. In the aisle, I knelt down and said, “Go and see what’s going on over there and I’ll be there in a minute.” I gave him a kiss on the cheek and off he ran to his friends who had gathered around the big tree. I watched from a distance as my son began the ritual that I had done for so many years as a child. I understood his joy.
I thought about how, just five minutes previously, he had prayed for a Christmas tree, and I realized that what he’d really wanted was the experience he was now having. As I walked up to Asher digging through a box of very used Christmas decorations, I whispered in his ear, “I think God answered your prayer, honey.” He turned to me with a smile and a twinkle in his eye that only a miracle could bring about.