Three dads talk about the joys and perils of December.
Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they talk about navigating the holidays. Part one of the discussion is below; parts two and three are here and here.
On a recent Friday night, I came home from work miraculously early, and sat on the no-longer-very-white couch with my wife, Jean, as our older daughter, Sasha, finished her dinner. After a bite of rice, Sasha turned to us and asked, "What am I doing tomorrow?" She had a little smile on her face—she knew exactly what was happening, but she liked to hear me tell it, again and again.
Well, I explained, tomorrow was her birthday! She'd be turning four, and after watching cartoons in the morning, she was going with her mom to see The Nutcracker. In the evening we'd have a Hanukkah dinner with friends, and on Sunday we'd throw a birthday party.
For some reason, however, this was not enough. "But what else?" she whined from her little red wooden chair. "What else?"
I was totally mystified. I'd just described what should have been an awesome weekend for a newly four-year-old, and yet each time I reiterated the fun we'd have, she came closer and closer to tears. Soon, Sasha was full-on crying, and Jean and I had to comfort her, unaware of what had set her off. Or at least I was unaware. Once the kid had calmed down, Jean leaned over to me and said, quietly, "She wants a visit from you-know-who."
Ah, now I knew. Just two days before, Jean and Sasha had visited me at my new workplace, and when I'd taken them around the office, Sasha had launched into a soliloquy—about Santa. About how her birthday was coming up, and it was going to snow, and Santa was going to bring her lots and lots of birthday presents. Santa Santa Santa. It had been like this a lot lately; they'd been learning about Christmas in pre-K.
At the time, I hadn't said anything, but I'd wanted to warn Sasha: Jean is a Buddhist, born and raised in Taipei, far from the commercialized American version of Christmas. But maybe not all that far—Jean, who keeps our radio tuned to Christmas stations these days, would be perfectly willing to have a Christmas tree at home, and to embrace the holiday's superficial aspects. But I'm Jewish, and though extremely secular I'm unwilling to allow into my home any aspect of the religion my ancestors, both distant and recent, resisted so strenuously. Sorry, Sasha, Santa won't be coming anywhere near our house.
Except I never told her that, because I didn't know how to do so without hurting her.
On Saturday, I braced myself: Could we get through all these events without having to break Sasha's Santa-loving heart? She saw The Nutcracker—and loved it. Her friends and their parents came over for Hanukkah dinner, we lit candles, I said what I remembered of the Hebrew prayers (more, I am proud to say, than my friend Theodore "Am I a Jew?" Ross here), and we ate latkes and roast lamb. The next day, more of Sasha's friends came over, bringing presents and squeals of happiness. And somehow, Santa's name never came up.
For another couple of days, I held my breath. Would Santa once again rear his white-bearded imaginary head? But no: Sasha dressed up in her Cinderella costume (a gift from her friend Katerina) and played with the Disney princess figurines we'd given her, and at bedtime we read "Don't Squish the Sasquatch," a gift from me. As long as Sasha had her new toys, she didn't care who'd given them to her—naked preschooler greed had triumphed over a desire for belonging.
And then, one evening, Sasha spontaneously started telling me about her day. Her teacher, it seems, had asked kids to raise their hands if they had a menorah in the house, and she ticked off the names of her classmates who did: Ari, Liam, and herself, Sasha! She even knew the other kids were Jewish.
"Do you know who else is Jewish?" I asked.
She smiled shyly and said nothing.
"Daddy is!" I said.
She looked surprised—and happily so. She listened patiently as I told her that Grandma and Grandpa were Jewish, too, and that Mommy was Buddhist. I'm not sure any of this meant anything to Sasha, and she never asked what she herself was. But for a moment, at least, Santa seemed far from her mind.
Of course, that was on December 11, leaving us two more weeks for tears, frustration, and presents.