If you are a little Jewish kid, Santa Claus does not enter your home via the chimney on Christmas Eve. Instead, he arrives in late fall, usually by way of the Target catalog and the television set. And if you are a little Jewish kid confronting old St. Nick for the first time via Frosty, Rudolph, Charlie Brown, or the 1966 animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, you may find yourself with a lot of questions. "Mamma, who is Center and where are my presents?" asked my 3-year-old, rather randomly, in October. "Mommy, is Santa real?" my 5-year-old asks pretty much daily. In the way of 5-year-old boys everywhere, he follows that one up with "Mom, if Santa and Judah the Maccabee got in a fight, who would win?"
One needn't be virulently anti-Christmas to experience the seasonal anxiety felt by parents who want their children to enjoy the winter holidays while avoiding religious indoctrination. That's what makes parenting Jewish kids at Christmastime such a fraught proposition. Jewish women who as children were whisked away to Jewish vacation resorts in Florida marry Jewish men who hung Hanukkah stockings next to a Hanukkah bush, alongside the plate of gefilte fish they'd left out for Santa. It's hard enough reconciling two deeply held versions of the Jewish holidays. Just try blending two deeply held traditions regarding the noncelebration of Christmas.
I, for instance, grew up in a household that viewed only How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas as acceptable Jewish holiday fare. My husband, on the other hand, tells me he grew up with unfettered access to the whole panoply of animated Christmas specials. When we discussed this for the first time last weekend, I gasped: "They let you watch Rudolph?" I confess that I spoke the words as though his family had permitted him to spend his Decembers camped out in a crèche.
Whether you are Christian or Jewish, come Easter and Passover, The Ten Commandments represents one-stop entertainment shopping. But there are few winter holiday movies that speak to all religions. So last week I sent out an e-mail and posted on Facebookasking Jewish friends how they decided on the permissibility of the Christmas television specials. The responses were amazing. And also bonkers.
Overwhelmingly, the consensus was this: Jewish kids of my generation were permitted to watch one or all of: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and The Year Without a Santa Claus. Therefore, their children are also allowed to watch them. But ask them why these movies pass muster and prepare for whomping exhibitions of illogic as only the People of the Book can practice it.
I learned this week that there exists an unspoken "no Jesus" rule, a "no Santa" rule (thus no Rudolph), a "no saints" rule (thus no Night Before Christmas),a "no resurrections" rule (even if it's resurrection by proxy; thus no Frosty), and also a "no bad music" rule (thus no Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special). Perhaps my favorite e-mail laying out a Unified Theory of Jewish Christmas Viewing drew the line thus: "claymation and puppets, esp. from Europe = yes; cheap animation and pop music, esp. from US = no."
All of these rules would make more sense, of course, were it not for the fact that, as I mentioned above, apparently all Jewish children are permitted to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. This despite the fact that the classic ends with Linus Van Pelt earnestly reciting from Luke 2:8-14: "Fear not: For behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you."
It nevertheless seems there's something about that poor schlump of a Charlie Brown and his inability to get into the spirit of Christmas (much less receive a single Christmas card) that speaks to the Jewish people. Indeed, if there is a more profoundly Jewish line than Linus' "How can you take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem?" I have yet to hear it.
Many Jewish kids I heard from were permitted to watch the Grinch every year, yet somehow nobody (including my parents) is able to explain why this is so. Nearly everyone who wrote to me explained that the Boris Karloff version of the Grinch was "a classic." OK. But dig a little deeper and what surfaces is a universal (and discomfiting) sense that the Grinch is a fundamentally Jewish show because the Grinch himself is a fundamentally Jewish character. I got one e-mail that concluded, "Who is more of a Grinch than a grumpy old Jew?" And a Jew with a heart problem no less?
A fair point, perhaps, but why do Jewish parents want to be pushing this peculiarly self-loathing vision of the bitter old Jewish man on their kids? Do we drag our kids to see The Merchant of Venice? If anything, the weird Grinch-as-old-Jew notion would seem to suggest that of all things Jewish kids should not be watching at Christmastime, the Seussian classic tops the list. But perhaps my colleague Emily Bazelon is right, and Jewish kids like the Grinch because "Without the ending, the movie is the ultimate fantasy for a Jewish kid with a case of Santa/tree/carols envy—Christmas, canceled."
To the panoply of Christmas rejecters and cancellers above, one can readily add the Heat Miser and Snow Miser from The Year Without a Santa Claus. Again, the show clearly violates the "No Santa" rule, and yet nearly everyone I spoke to grandfathered it in as Jewishly acceptable. Asked why, the response is that the sheer genius of the Heat Miser/Snow Miser musical rivalry redeems any sectarian message. Yet it's hard not to wonder again whether there's something about the grouchy, bitter misers—misers!—poised to wreck Christmas that seems to speak to Jewish parents.
Ultimately, most Jewish parents wrestling with what to let their kids watch at Christmastime seemed really to be coping with their own remembered feelings of exclusion. (That's why this may be the single greatest Jewish Christmas song ever written.) It may also explain why little Jewish kids get to watch so many shows in which Christmas almost doesn't happen—or about grouchy people who feel bitterly lacking in the Christmas spirit.
None of this solves any of my own questions about what to tell my children about the sudden appearance-but-not-acceptance of Santa in their lives. Perhaps it is instructive that my 5-year-old's Judah the Maccabee story is a seamless and lengthy narrative of Hasmonean warriors, light sabers, and the spiritually redemptive powers of heat vision, such that tossing a Rudolph or Frosty into the mix will hardly dilute its already syncretic spiritual appeal. This is not so much an argument for the great universalist Teddy Ruxpin Christmas display as a suggestion that the proper non-Christian response to Christmas joy is not to try to block, suppress, or hide from it. Or to limit our kids' Christmas viewing to movies featuring charming yet bitter protagonists bent on blocking, suppressing, or hiding from it.
In my research for this piece, I finally sat down and watched Frosty, Rudolph, and Pee-Wee's Christmas special. And in doing so, I came across a good deal of material that may well have been more familiar to the Maccabee brothers than to Santa. Indeed, Rudolph's immortal words to Hermey the Misfit Elf may be said to poignantly encapsulate 5,000 years of Jewish aspiration: "Goodbye, Hermey. Whatever a dentist is, I hope someday you will be the greatest!"