So remember about a week and a half ago when I was saying how nice it is that my kids aren’t asking to celebrate Christmas?
Well, I spoke a little to soon. They’re not clamoring for a tree or anything, but for over a week, Sophie has insisted on us reading “The Polar Express” to her each night.
Her pre-K teacher had been reading the book in class — in fact, she stripped it of its Christmas content and even built a little show around it last week — so Sophie was thrilled to discover the story on our bookshelf.
How we came to acquire “The Polar Express” — about a boy’s nighttime train ride to the North Pole, where he enjoys some face (knee?) time with the locale’s most famous resident — I’m not entirely sure. Our bookshelf is a cluttered mess of hand-me-downs, gifts, books that we bought ourselves, and library books we have forgotten to return. Until Sophie spotted “The Polar Express,” I’d never read it or been aware we owned it — it’s almost as if Santa Claus himself snuck in and slipped it on our shelf.
At first I felt a bit squeamish about reading a Christmas story, and even Joe tried to talk Sophie out of it one night. But then I thought: the kid gets plenty of exposure to Judaism, and would I avoid reading a book about a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist holiday? Christmas exists, and it seems silly to pretend otherwise, even if we don’t celebrate it ourselves.
It’s actually a good book and beautifully illustrated, although its charm wears thin after seven consecutive readings. The sticky question, however, is its emphasis on Santa — especially the closing message that only those who believe will be able to hear his magical sleigh bells.
Ellie, who is 7, seems to have come to terms with Santa — like Jesus, he’s just something Christians believe in and Jews don’t. But for 4-year-old Sophie, he’s a real figure who brings gifts to Christmas-celebrating friends.
So how are Jewish parents supposed to teach their kids about Santa without a) having them ruin the secret for their Christian friends or b) making him seem almost anti-Semitic (he brings gifts to Christians, but not to Jews)? My fellow intermarried mom writer Laurel Snyder does a far better job than me of exploring the whole Santa conundrum in a great new essay on Killing The Buddha.
Stay tuned for more about Jews and Christmas later this week. In the meantime, check out Dahlia Lithwick’s piece in Slate about Jews watching Christmas specials on TV.
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