By Lela Casey
This time of year has always been confusing to me. Being the only Jewish kid was not much of a big deal for most of the year. I could hide out, lay low, blend in. On Halloween I’d paint my face with sparkling colors and march alongside my peers in the parade. No one had to know that I wasn’t allowed to go trick or treating. When Thanksgiving came along, I’d trace my fingers into plump turkeys and fold paper into complicated cornocopias side by side with my classmates.
But the minute the turkeys and stuffing were pushed aside to make room for jolly elves and Nativity scenes I was alone. While the other kids chattered about the gifts Santa would bring them and the holiday parties they were planning to attend, I’d sit quietly by myself chewing on secrets that no kid should have to keep alone. There was no Santa. Jesus was just a nice, misunderstood guy. And Christmas was a big fat marketing scam.
I know that my mom meant for those words to be comforting. And, there was some comfort in feeling wiser, less naive. But, mostly it felt lonely.
On Hannukah , my parents would make a big deal about how special it was to celebrate our own holiday. We’d plaster our house with blue and silver garland and light up every window with a glowing menorah. We’d make latkes and sufganiyot and play dreidel and sing songs in Hebrew.
And there were presents!! So many presents! Sometimes two or three a night. So many presents our heart would flutter just to see them piled up in brightly colored paper. So many presents that they’d spill our of our toybox and across the floor. So many presents that we couldn’t possibly feel like we were missing out on anything. And yet, somehow we still did.
When I married my husband (who isn’t Jewish), we agreed to celebrate a secular Christmas. No Santa, no church, just dinner with his family and of course presents. Lots and lots of presents. To add to the madness, my oldest son was born on December 18, exactly eight days before Christmas (His Bris is a whole other story!). So, now we had Christmas, with its gluttony of gifts…( because stripped of its spirituality, that’s all that’s really left), my son’s birthday, which certainly could not be forgotten, and Hannukah.
The last thing that I wanted was for my kids to feel like being Jewish was less fun. So, just like my parents did, I piled on the glitter and lights and presents. So many freaking presents. The war that my mother once waged against Christmas was now raging across our living room floor leaving a carnage of shredded wrapping paper and broken Legos in its wake. You can imagine the results of all of this. Piles of unused, unappreciated presents and kids who were completely confused about what any of it really meant.
“Why can’t we go caroling?” “Why doesn’t Santa come to our house?” “Why don’t we bake any cookies? What’s the point of Hannukah anyway?”
It seemed that no matter what I gave my kids, Christmas still won.
Last year I tried a different approach. First of all, we scaled down our gift list to the very minimum. One small gift per child per night. That first night I wrapped up play dough and origami paper and held my breath. Big smiles, happy kids, no problem.
I couldn’t just scale down the holiday though, I had to build it up too. We sang Hannukah songs and made latkes. We played dreidels and lit the menorah. It was better. Definitely better. Until the fourth night when my son asked me if he could go Christmas caroling with his friends instead of staying home and lighting candles with us. I tried not to show him how hurt I was. But I was hurt. Hurt and disappointed. Mostly in myself. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I just could not make Hannukah meaningful.
On the fifth night, an old friend called. She mentioned that our town’s Chabad Hannukah celebration was the next evening and asked if we’d like to go. I didn’t want to go. At all. It was supposed to be a cold night and there were very few Jewish families in our town. I just couldn’t bear one more failed attempt to get my kids excited about Hannukah. But, my friend was persistent and I eventually gave in.
It was a cold night. Freezing even. The kids grumbled as we stuffed them into layers of coats and hats and gloves and piled them in the car. They grumbled even more as we dragged them out of the car into the icy air. After a long, whiny walk, we turned onto the street where the party was to be held. What I saw made my heart skip a beat.
There were lights and singing and music and so many kids! My daughter let go of my hand and ran ahead, her mittens and hat falling behind her in a haphazard trail of colors. We caught up to her and stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of families singing and holding candles, feeling the warmth in our hearts spread down to our frozen toes.
The rest of the evening was spent chatting with new friends while our kids tromped around with a whole gang of Hannukah-celebrating little ones. They laughed and danced and spun around like manic dreidals. By the end of the night, my kids were exhausted, over-sugared and so so happy. As I carried my daughter to bed, she noticed the stack of presents we had planned on distributing that evening.
“Want to open your present now?” I whispered.
“Nope. I don’t need anything else.” she said, as she snuggled closer to me. I breathed in her sweet little girl smell and hugged her tightly.
She was right. She didn’t need any more stuff. None of us did. We’d finally found what was missing. It wasn’t Santa or Christmas Carols or more presents. What my kids had needed all along, what I’d needed all along, was that special feeling you can only get from being part of a community.
jkidphilly parent Lela Casey was raised by an Israeli mother and and American father in a rural town in Northeast Pennsylvania. Her experiences as one of the only Jewish kids in the area have have had a profound impact on her life. She is currently a contributing writer at Kveller.com, a stay-at-home mom, a Hebrew school teacher, and an eager student of life.