As soon as you can smell a turkey cooking in America, we officially enter “the holiday season.” Christmas songs are already playing on the airwaves, pine trees are being schlepped down Broadway, and, yes, many of our neighbors in the Big Apple have started to display their Christmas lights outside their windows for all to see and admire.
Recently my eight-year-old son dragged me by the hand to show me the lights from our apartment window.
“Daddy, can we get some? Please.” Usually that “please” thing does the trick for me, but this time a real conversation was necessary. This year the calendrical coincidence that Hanukkah and Christmas fall out on the same day only adds to the complexity of the situation. The last time this happened was 1978! I explained that these lights are for Christmas, which is someone else’s holiday, and that we have our own holiday and our own lights, namely the candles of the Hanukkah menorah, which will illuminate our window in just a few weeks.
In actuality, he knew everything I told him about Hanukkah from his Jewish day school, and is sincerely looking forward to our upcoming holiday.
Still, he wanted me to know that he found the colorful lights to be beautiful.
My sense of calm returned when I realized that he was not challenging his upbringing or faith.
Rather, in the words of the Broadway musical In the Heights, he was “forming an artistic opinion.”
I felt like I dodged a bullet because other people’s holidays can be puzzling for children, especially when they are fun. Kids tend to think of life in black and white, yet our contemporary society, life itself, is drawn in multiple shades of gray.
I have first-hand experience with how confusing it can be. In first grade I attended the holiday party at my public school in Needham, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. This annual event included holiday songs, sugar cookies with holiday themes, and of course, the star of the show, Santa Claus.
As a six-year-old, I remember having mixed feelings about singing holiday songs because I was Jewish. Silver bells were one thing; mangers and angels were another. Little did I know that White Christmas was written by a Jew, Irving Berlin. Whatever hesitations I might have had as a six-year-old, this holiday party was really fun.
Everyone loved Santa. He was funny and had gifts for all of the kids. He roared “Ho, Ho, Ho!” as he left, and all of the children waved goodbye.
A few minutes later my teacher told me to go into the hall. There was Santa waiting to talk to me. Me, one of the few Jewish kids in the class.
Perhaps Santa had called out the wrong kid.
As I approached Santa, he took off his hat and his beard. To my surprise and shock, it was my father.
It was one of the most confusing moments of my young life. My dad had been my Jewish role model since the day I was born, and here he was dressed as Santa. It was like unmasking Santa to find Judah Maccabee.
Speechless, I burst out crying. It didn’t matter to me that just a few moments before this Santa was cooler to me and my friends than the Fonz.
Truth be told, my father had helped out my school because he had a Santa suit for his store’s holiday display, and they were in need of someone to entertain dozens of elementary school students. He not only did them a favor, he was also the hit of the party.
But none of that mattered to me as I sobbed in the hallway. What confused me most was that my father, who spoke daily about how important Judaism was to him and how much he wanted his boys to keep Judaism alive, was dressed up as the symbol of another faith, someone else’s holiday, another world almost.
As an adult today, I know that looking under the costume can evoke many strong feelings. I have heard several stories about children who have broken down in tears when they saw a Disney character without his “head on.”
Unfortunately, at six years old, I did not possess this experience or wisdom.
Seeing that I was clearly upset and perplexed, my father explained why he was there as Santa, listened to me as I tried to articulate in the moment why I was crying, and quickly ditched the Santa outfit.
The situation was not black and white. His passion for Judaism had gone head to head with his compassion to help at his kid’s school. Unfortunately this fun, festive and generous gesture telegraphed a thoroughly confusing message to his six-year-old son.
This was my first introduction to the complexity of life during the holiday season, which continues until today.
Looking at the festive holiday lights, I agree with my son that they are beautiful. At the same time, these attractive lights can be confusing, especially in an open marketplace of ideas accessed easily from TV, the Internet, and even our windows. Ultimately I pray that this calendarical coincidence will lead to intentional opportunities of shared purpose and unity, at a time when the world so desperately needs it.The author serves as the director of Congregational Education at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. He blogs on fatherhood and parenting at www.GrowingUpwithMyChildren.com.