We make a left out of our apartment and walk on Sixth Avenue, where a wide selection of pine trees are available for purchase.
“I want a Christmas tree,” says Ravi, my 4-year-old.
“What’s Christmas?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Ravi says. “I like the lights.”
Why shouldn’t she want a tree? Pine trees especially are beautiful and have a distinct smell, too. Truth is, we’ve already got a few plants at home and we don’t celebrate Christmas, but there is plenty of precedent in Judaism for adorning sacred spaces with greenery. On Shavuot, for example, also known as the Harvest Festival, Jews bring plants and flowers into the synagogue sanctuary, based on the rabbinic teaching that Mt. Sinai, a hill in a desert, bloomed with flowers when the Torah was given.
Maybe Ravi is familiar with this midrash on some mystical level. Maybe it’s because there are literally Christmas trees on every other corner in our neighborhood and Christmas jingles in every store we enter. Either way, Christmas is part of Ravi’s landscape even though she can’t wait for Hanukkah.
At a recent Shabbat lunch, a friend who teaches at a day school quizzed Ravi on some Hanukkah trivia. Our 4-year-old, who attends public school, faired well, identifying the upcoming holiday and its symbols with ease.
But what about that other holiday symbol, Santa?
We drop off her brother at day care and the teachers are decorating the room for the “holidays” (which might as well be Christmas, because there are no Kwanza or Hanukkah decorations up). On the floor is a huge portrait of the Coca-Cola commercialized image of Santa Claus.
“Who’s that?” Ravi asks.
“Santa Claus!” the teachers reply, slightly shocked by the question.
“Who’s that?” Ravi asks again.
Maybe in Israel I wouldn’t have this experience. But in New York, and as a member of a larger secular society, this particular rabbi had to teach his daughter who Santa Claus is.
On Saturday, as Ravi walked to synagogue with Yael, my partner, she noted all the people dressed up as “Jacobs” and wondered why.
When we got home, Yael caught me up to speed.
“It was SantaCon,” she said, “and we passed all these folks dressed in Santa Claus outfits and Ravi kept on calling them Jacobs! Do you know why?”
I laughed. I then walked over to Ravi’s reading nook and took out a book called “Parasha for Tots,” which tells the weekly Torah portion with cartooned characters.
I pointed to Jacob, who in this particular picture can be seen wearing a white fluffy beard.
If that isn’t nakhes, Yiddish for “prideful joy,” then what is? My daughter assumed all the Christian Santa Clauses in town were characters from the weekly Torah portion — patriarchs, no less!
The holidays can be a challenging time for families of mixed faiths navigating different narratives and experiences. Which family do we celebrate with? For those families with children, how do we acknowledge these holidays, competing or complimentary? In our religious Jewish home, Ravi knows Hanukkah deeply and echoes our excitement for the upcoming holiday. But she is also passionate about Christmas trees and curious about Santa “Jacob” Claus, too. I strive to honor and embrace her curiosity while showing that we do as we do.
At that same Shabbat when Ravi saw the “Jacobs” in the street, she asked a guest at our table, “Excuse me, do you celebrate Shabbat?”
Forget her Santa Claus/Jacob comparison; this question really made me kvell. Our 4-year-old is learning that different people celebrate differently and that some Jews celebrate Christmas and some Jews celebrate Shabbat. She felt confident enough to ask and to ask openly.
I hope she continues to trust her instincts, love her faith and culture deeply, and never stop seeing the interconnectedness in everything.