Chanukah came early this year, again. While it means I’m always disorganized at the beginning, the miracle of the 8 days of oil is that I have a few extra days to get ready and can still finish strong.
But it was so early this year—Thanksgiving dinner was barely digested when it was time to find candles and menorah—that I was uncharacteristically unprepared. Not a single gift was wrapped and placed in front of the fireplace, as I usually manage to do. But I am creative, so the first night magically became “the night we give to others.” The boys each got to choose a charity we would donate to. They adopted a Cheetah through World Wildlife Fund, and helped bring clean drinking water to a village through Water.org. Okay, so I was feeling pretty good about Chanukah (even if my boys were unsure about this new tradition), and it bought me a day to get my act together.
The rest of the holiday was filled with gifts to go along with the seductive lighting of candles (and temptation to blow them out). So far neither of my kids seems to have Christmas-envy, for which I am grateful. They don’t ask for holiday lights or a “Chanukah bush” or to wait in long lines to sit on Santa’s lap (another of my favorite perks about being Jewish).
Two weeks before Christmas, with Chanukah already a memory, we had the lovely surprise of Christmas carolers. I answered the door and called up, “Hey everyone, come downstairs!” But with the Wii and KIIS FM blaring, they didn’t hear me. I was the only one to enjoy the event. (I tried shouting once more for the rest of my clan to come down, but it seemed uncouth to be shouting over Silent Night.)
Eventually, Emmett trickled downstairs, the only one who heard me calling, and he and I watched the group of carolers walking and singing down the street toward our neighbor’s house. It was his first encounter with this mysterious tradition.
A short while later, bedtime called. I turned off their light and pressed kisses into their cheeks. There is something about the moment before falling asleep that makes it the prime time for sharing confusing interactions with friends. Emmett spoke: “At center time today at school, Alexander said I was a bad boy…because I’m Jewish.”
This was a first, so I didn’t have a ready answer. I wasn’t concerned about Alexander. I’m pretty confident he was just extending the whole “team rivalry” thing kids are steeped in (e.g. Go Bruins! Boo Trojans!) to another part of his identity (go Christians! Boo Jews!). Emmett himself informed me last year that he had told our sweet (Christian) babysitter “Jesus is mean.” I was horrified that she might have thought we had taught him that. Emmett and I had a good talk then: Jesus isn’t mean, all religions are good. It is not a competition.
But this was the first time either of my sons had received a personal dig because he is Jewish, and it hurt. Me. I was sad that he had been introduced so young, at such close range, to the otherness we eventually learn is our heritage. I want him to be proud of being a Jew, as I am (and, miraculously, always was). There in the darkness, I retold them the story of my second grade Christmas recital, when all eight Jewish kids in our school got to light a candle on the menorah. I was so proud! I got to play with matches because I was Jewish! And we were so special, so few! Things have changed. They counted the number of Jewish friends they have at their public school—about one-third.
But I’m starting to see the world through a Jewish six-year-old’s December eyes. Christmas is bright colors and fun: Santa and overflowing sacks of toys and reindeer songs. There are no fun Chanukah characters! The coloring pages at the local restaurant are Santa and his reindeer. When I looked online for Chanukah coloring pages, Emmett rejected them: boys and girls draped in shawls, huddled around a table, candles burning, no electricity, a plate of fried round potatoes their only consolation, singing songs in minor keys about war victories, looking as though they were about to suffer a pogrom. Come on!! Where are the iced cookies?! Gingerbread houses?! Where’s the sled dashing through snow?! I began to feel the delayed injustice of Christmas-envy I had never before known.
But before I could get too carried away, back in that dark room, Emmett was working hard to figure all of this out. He cut to the heart of the matter. “Mom…is our God in Christians?” He spoke in his slow way, articulating each syllable as though he is still not fluent with the language, wanting to choose the right word.
I didn’t understand his question. I asked him to explain.
“Well…if God is everywhere, is he in Christians, too?”
Aha. Thank you, Emmett. “Yes,” I said, relieved that he had answered the question I didn’t even know he was asking, with an answer that was better than I would have come up with. “Yes, God is everywhere, in all people, Jews and Christians and everyone.”
I waited for a follow up question. But none came. With that riddle answered, he could fall asleep. On Monday morning, he and Alexander were all smiles and hugs and gibberish word games while jumping up and down.
And to that I say, Amen.
Merry Christmas, Happy belated Chanukah, and a peaceful new year to all.