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.
I arrived home last night long after dark, and without having remembered to stop by the store to buy more Hanukkah candles. The bodega across the street, open all hours and offering necessaries that range from serious plumbing equipment to high-end beer, had only the birthday, votive, and Virgin-Mary-in-a-highball varieties. I went with birthdays, although they were too narrow for my menorah, and I was able to anchor them by dripping wax into the holders. We skipped the prayers and ordered Chinese.
We opened gifts for the children from my mother—expensive dresses that my daughters, Ellie (two) and Mena (three months), will rarely if ever have occasion to wear, and that they will undoubtedly destroy if ever they do; and a stack of books for my son, JP (six), that included The Wind in the Willows, a kid-version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and some sort of Stars Wars comic book that may have a Hooked on Phonics tie-in; all in all, a step forward in her purchasing history for the boy, as the books are age-appropriate and have nothing to do with an e-reader or video games, which we ban and that she has attempted to addict him to during her regular visits from Mississippi.
My wife, Tomoko, also brought out the packages sent by her father in Japan (Her mother has passed away.): durable winter clothes for my son and the baby; a scarf for Tomoko to wear if she decides to stop being an advertising-executive-who-surfs-and-does-yoga and transforms into a suburban housewife who needs something to warm her neck on the golf course; a set of miniature wooden milk bottles for my two-year-old—presumably not made in China, and potentially safe to put in one's mouth—and a set of traditional raw-silk Japanese pajamas, which Tomoko says are unisex, but I claimed as my own because, as I told her, they made me feel like a Shogun defending the honor of our clan. Tomoko made her father a calendar with photos of the children on each month's page, which I was supposed to send to Kobe last week. It is sitting in my bag next to my desk as I write this, un-mailed. Tomoko also has a sister who lives in San Francisco, but they are estranged, so she won't be getting anything. If she reads this, her nieces await.
The previous evening was one of "my nights" with my son. I borrowed candles from my upstairs neighbors (they didn't fit either—I had to saw off the bottoms) and looked up a phonetic transliteration of the Hebrew prayers, which I blundered my way through and then cooked cheeseburgers—using kosher beef. Over dinner, JP, who has dedicated himself to pointing out the differences between him and his sister, Ellie, announced that unlike her, he is half-Christian and half-Jewish, while she is "just Jewish." I corrected him: Ellie, and Mena, are half-Jewish and half-Buddhist, Tomoko's religion, which she practices not at all. This prompted an attempt to explain Buddhism to a six-year-old ("It's a religion"), followed by my insistence that despite his living in two households, we are one family. Then Ellie launched into a version of "Jingle Bells," which she must have learned at daycare, because I certainly didn't teach her.
We held off giving the children their "big" gifts until the last night of Hanukkah, when my father and his wife, Lucie (They married when I was in my 30s, so I'm reluctant to refer to her as my step-mother—that's his second wife, who I haven't spoken to in nearly a decade) returned from a cruise. We did give him a Chinese checkers set and more books--a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia, which apparently has a prequel, The Magician's Nephew, which if my son is interested in he can read himself, as I'm starting with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe); Ellie got a canister of Tinker Toys, which she sprayed joyfully across the room. For reasons I can't quite understand, Tomoko bought JP a Star Wars advent calendar, which he loves and which I haven't linked with Christmas in his mind.
My brother, Jason, has two daughters, for whom we have purchased a small selection of American Girl paraphernalia. Our father and Lucie sent the girls party dresses, which Jason dressed them up in and photographed. His wife, Julie, emailed the photos to Lucie. Yesterday, Jason called me to complain that Lucie, on receipt of the photos, replied with a request for a reshoot, with the girls' hair done in a particular way that she had taught them. He said that if a man had made this request, he would be responding with fear rather than irritation.
I give Jason the same gift each year: the gift of not getting him a gift and not expecting him to get me one. I offered that gift to Tomoko as well, and she accepted it initially without reservation. Then a couple of days ago she handed me a copy of the calendar she made for her father, personalized for me, and told me not to feel obligated to get her anything in return. I'm shopping for earrings and will decide presently which pair to get.
I know we bought something for my father and Lucie, but I can't remember what it is. We sent my mother ornaments for her Christmas tree. To understand the surrealism of that choice, know that the first sentence of my book, Am I a Jew?, reads as follows: "I was nine years old when my mother forced me to convert to Christianity."
The ornaments have a gauzy seasonal charm, and my mother loves her tree as only a Jew from Queens who became an Episcopalian can. For my stepfather I picked out a fancy coffee rig and a stainless steel filter, which, a knowledgeable friend tells me, mitigates tannic flavors in the brew—pretentious and thoughtful, all at once.
I love the disorderly, contentious, inappropriate, seriocomic, fragile mess that is my family. I would crumble without my wife, and nothing will ever be as important to me as my children. But the holidays empty me, they burden me, they signify the many ways in which all is not as it should be. And then they end.
At the risk of betraying a certain sameness among the three of us writers, I should say that my children have the same general heritage-mix as Theodore and Matt's kids put together: part-Christian, part-Buddhist, part-Jewish. But I remain the only one of us three who isn't a full Jew (I'm only half, and my maternal grandparents were Christian ministers), and so I should probably teach my fellow DadWagoners something about Christmas.
Or rather, I should teach what The Kinks taught me. The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York" seems to be making a lot of playlists this season, but to my mind, the Kinks' "Father Christmas" is a much better summation of Christmas in our family:
Father Christmas, give us some money
We'll beat you up if you make us annoyed
Father Christmas, give us some money
Don't mess around with those silly toys
My daughter, who is old enough now at six to actually read this if she knew the password to the wireless router, not only still believes in Santa, but she also believes that he owes her some cash. Her Christmas list, which she has been fine-tuning and illustrating since November, starts off with a simple wish: I want a bag of real gold coins.
As requests go, it's more Tony Soprano than Timothy Cratchit. And it would seem in line with the general Christmas culture in this country: children who have become accustomed to extorting parents aided by parents who think they can buy their children's affection, or at least silence their whining, by emptying out the local Toys 'R' Us.
And while I can't generally defend the current state of the holiday, I can at least say that this is not exclusively a Christian problem. I'm fairly sure my daughter's first request sprang from a somewhat literal interpretation of Hanukkah gelt, which remains one of the less charming holiday traditions in my family tree.
But if you want to know the real culprit for all the gold-obsession, I'm going to lay it at the feet of the Buddhists. My father-in-law is Buddhist, and displays many of those beguiling traits common to the religion: equanimity, calm, a talent for living in the present. But my last trip to Burma gave me a glimpse of one of Theravada Buddhism's bigger weaknesses: gold. The military junta had a bad history of, say, shooting monks and then trying to regain favor with gods and men alike by larding their pagodas with gold leaf. East Asian Buddhism is not immune, either: The Chinese are still busy stripping all the gold and jade out of Burma's northern hills while halfway around the world the abalone are poached to the point of extinction for the Chinese market because they look, in their natural form, a bit like an imperial gold ingot.
This is, I suppose, what Christmas is: It didn't invent or advance greed, it's merely an effective way of teaching it to children of all creeds.