Right near our house, on the corner across from Whole Foods and next to the car wash, there is an empty lot. My son and I pass this lot multiple times a day on our way to school in the car, running errands or just grabbing a bagel.
Normally, this is not a big deal. Sometimes, though, it is a huge deal, like when they transformed the lot into a pumpkin patch. I thought how lucky are we that we can just stumble right outside our door for this much fun.
But now the pumpkins are gone. Then Ben asked what comes next and I, not wanting to lie, said the Christmas trees.
And then every day, Ben kept a lookout until the trees arrived. He would crane his neck from the car seat or from the stroller, depending how we passed by. I was excited by his excitement. We rejoiced when we saw the trucks arrive setting up the lot for the trees. But suddenly then Ben was really excited, like really, really excited. Suddenly Ben was noticing Santa on chocolate lollipops at Whole Foods from aisles away. Suddenly Ben was realizing it was Christmas. Suddenly Ben wanted a tree.
This may not seem like a problem, just a 3-year-old getting into the holiday spirit. But we’re Jewish. Actually, at first I didn’t think it was any different from admiring the big blow-up turkey at Ralphs or visiting the pumpkin patch, but Halloween and Thanksgiving are not religious holidays.
I have never had a Christmas tree in my house (even somehow when I had non-Jewish roommates) and neither has my husband. And I don’t plan on having one. This time of year, my home has a menorah. I love Christmas trees and their lights and decorations, but it is a celebratory expression of a religion that is not mine.
But how do I explain to Benjamin that this tree that has sparkly pretty lights with beautiful decorations that he has been drooling over with weeks of anticipation is not something we have in our house? So far I have just told him that we are not buying one and he has not yet crossed into massive begging. He seems content to just visit and admire.
But then we went to the mall to play on the ride-on games and Benjamin noticed (and when I say noticed I mean became transfixed) by their huge tree and by Santa.
It was like Santa was a movie star. Ben hid behind my leg, poking his head out to make sure he was still there and then hiding again, not able to handle his beauty. Perhaps I didn’t help because I was excited by Santa as well. Santa even gave him a candy cane and Ben said thank you in a barely audible whisper, unsure if he was allowed to speak directly to the actual Santa.
I hadn’t really thought yet about how to handle explaining religion or the differences in religion to my 3-year-old son. I do plan to explore and explain it, hopefully with great respect for all religions, but I figured the concepts might be too big for him now. To be honest, I haven’t even really explained Chanukah to him yet. But here we are with Christmas everywhere, and I want him to understand why I may say no to certain things, like buying a tree.
But honoring our religion doesn’t mean we can’t participate in the customs of other religions. I distinctly remember going to the mall with my grandmother and great grandmother, both two very religious women, and seeing Santa. To me, it was not about Jesus or religion. It was about a special visit to the mall with my grandmothers. I can’t remember if my very observant Jewish grandmother let me sit on Santa’s lap for a picture, but I am sure if I had asked she would have.
And even though I thought seeing Santa was really cool, I still never had a tree. The trips to the mall did not change who I am.
My mother will be here this year for Chanukah and she has already had shipped to our house a play menorah and plastic latkes for Benjamin. As his grandmother, perhaps she will provide a more traditional experience of this holiday, as my grandmother did for me. Though, for the record, she is also the one who sparked his initial interest in Santa, though it was by accident when she bought him The Polar Express, since he loves trains.
Having my son fawn over Santa is not the worst thing in the world, in fact it is pretty adorable.
We will make our way through each holiday season, finding the right balance between encouraging his curiosity with the world around him and our traditions. We will find our way. And though I am pretty sure we will never have a tree, perhaps someday he’ll have his picture taken with Santa, if he wants to. But that day at the mall, even though we kept going back to admire the big tree and to gape at Santa, he wasn’t interested. And I admit, I was relieved.
Rachel Zients Schinderman lives in Santa Monica with her family. She can be reached at Rachel@mommiebrain.com.