As a lonely Jewish child, I felt the absence of Christmas far more acutely than I did the presence of Hanukkah. Jews try to maintain the fiction that Hanukkah is somehow equal to Christmas, a holiday that obsesses an enormous segment of the population for months at a time and whose commerce constitutes a huge portion of our national economy. Hell, it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that Christmas is a more American holiday than The Fourth Of July.
But the truth is that Hanukkah is really just a sad little consolation prize, the equivalent of getting a "Participation" ribbon instead of a shiny golden trophy. It's a minor holiday posited as a major one largely, if not exclusively, so that Jewish children will feel better about not being able to celebrate Christmas.
I longed to celebrate Christmas when I was a boy, but was perpetually doomed to be on the outside looking in. Christmas was a yearly reminder that I was different from everybody else, and as a little boy inundated with Christmas movies and Christmas songs and Christmas specials and constant reminders of Jesus' birth, it was hard not to feel inferior and lacking, like the only person in an elementary school class not invited to a popular kid's birthday party.
That Yuletide yearning receded as the years went on, but when I recently got the assignment to cover the world's oldest and best school for Santa Clauses in the surprisingly robust town of Midland, Michigan, all those old feelings came rushing back to me. I may have been a 39 year old Jew in flip-flops and a Phish hoodie, but the army of twinkly-eyed, heavily bearded Santas in their fifties and sixties treated me like I was a wide-eyed moppet overwhelmed with the Christmas spirit, and for the three days I spent embedded with pathologically devoted Santa Clauses, that was probably true.
I have a one-year-old baby boy, and so throughout my time among the Santas, I thought about whether or not I would celebrate Christmas with my son in some manner other than the sacred Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food and watching a movie.
When I saw the way children's faces lit up when they saw the school's marauding pack of Santa Clauses during our various field trips, I thought of my son, and how I wanted him to experience some of that magic for himself. I want more than anything for my son to be happy, to experience childhood without crushing neuroses or debilitating insecurities and it has been imprinted indelibly on my psyche, and the psyche of pretty much everyone, that there is no greater source of happiness for a girl or boy than to rush downstairs on Christmas morning to see what presents Santa left under the tree.
There is a lot of Christmas culture that has nothing to do with Jesus. But it seems dishonest and disingenuous to act as if it were a solely secular affair.
As a parent, one of my primary goals is to give my son everything that I never had growing up. And I would be lying if part of that wasn't the opportunity to be part of Christmas, even in an aggressively non-secular fashion. That's the thing about Christmas: it's a holiday about Jesus that's for everyone, but it is also, ultimately, a holiday about Jesus and no amount of tinsel and holly and eggnog can change that fact.
There is a lot of Christmas culture that has nothing to do with Jesus. But it seems dishonest and disingenuous to act as if it were a solely secular affair. Jesus is, after all, the reason for the season, and if our little guy really gets into Christmas there will come a point where I'll have to explain to him that the core of Christmas conflicts pretty dramatically with our religious beliefs, particularly regarding the non-sacred nature of Jesus (do we think he was a swell guy with neat ideas? Sure. The son of God? Not so much.)
Being Jewish still makes me feel different, but the older I get, and the more I accept myself and embrace my heritage, the more I feel like that difference makes me and my family special rather than lacking or inferior. And while there is part of me that would love to see my son's eyes light up when he sees his first Santa or gazes at a towering Christmas tree with something approaching rapture, I also feel like that would be betraying part of who I am.
Looking back, I suspect that part of the reason I envied Christians when December 25th approached was because Christmas symbolized all that I desperately wanted but could not have. My Jewish wife grew up much more comfortably, and perhaps not coincidentally, never pined for Christmas the way I did.
The great thing about being an adult and a parent is that you don't have to be prisoner to the past. You can forge your own path. That's exciting and liberating. I look forward to creating my own traditions with my son. I'm not sure whether Santa Claus will be part of that tradition, but I do want to instill in him the idea that happiness comes from within, and is not the product of an overweight man in red with a legendary gift-giving compulsion.