Around this time of year, I find myself being much more solicitous with my two boys, aged 7 and 5. How are you feeling, I ask when I oversee them brushing their teeth before school. Has anything been bothering you, I inquire when we’re sitting on the couch playing Uno after dinner. Is there something you want to talk about, I say, when I put them to bed. Like Christmas?
I so hated being Jewish as a kid that I started wearing a cross around my neck in high school and telling people that I was adopted and my real parents were a gritty Italian couple named the Fortunatos. I didn’t like being a minority. I wanted to celebrate Christmas.
If we only had a Hanukkah bush, I often wonder, would I not have worn the cross? Could the difference between a healthy Jewish life and a tortured one be stuffed stockings waiting at a gentile friend’s house? I feel guilty criticizing my late mother, who tried so hard to make Hanukkah a worthy Christmas equivalent. A woman who hated shopping and was terrified of malls, she valiantly amassed eight days of presents for me and my two sisters that we rarely appreciated. But she should have gotten me the bush.
If I were a better, less-neurotic father, I would run out right now to one of those makeshift pine tree lots and drag home a Hanukkah bush and top it with a glitzy menorah or Magen David (like I saw when I Googled Hanukkah bush). My Asian-American friends who are not Christian put up trees for their kids as a matter of course, and it doesn’t make them any less Asian. But ultimately I’m too conflicted to get a Christmas tree and call it a bush; I’m the father who named his sons Benjamin and Emanuel after all, not Aiden and Grayson. Last year my wife and the boys decorated the house with “winter” decorations, including a big, shiny snowflake, and I freaked out: “We’re not Christian!”
“It’s a snowflake!” my wife shot back.
“Take it down,” I said.
I watch my boys while they fall asleep and wonder when their holiday inferiority complex is going to take hold. They seem so unburdened now about what they can and can’t celebrate, but that can’t last. At least we gave them a Christian godmother, I remind myself, who is very generous and showers them with presents for all the holidays. (I recently asked my youngest son what his favorite holiday was, and he said Easter.)
My wife has a pretty awesome theory. She thinks that I hated Christmas as a kid because my father, a cardiologist, was always off at the hospital and I was lonely. Our boys, she reasons, will never feel that same sadness because I don’t work nearly as much as my father did; we’re all going to be together on December 25 facing the non-holiday together.
I still think my boys would like a Hanukkah bush, and I want to get it for them, but I’m going to start with the snowflake decoration and work my way up.