Xmas dilemma

A couple of weeks ago we had a visit from one of Z’s old friends. Since the fellow was a Jewish, atheist, Marxist, academic (which for me translates into probably-has-some-sense-in-his head), I thought I’d ask what he thought of the upcoming Christmas concert at Eila’s school, where her class will sing “He’ll be Comin’ Down the Chimney When He Comes” and “The Twelve Dogs of Christmas” (to the tunes you might expect). He told me, point blank, that when he was at school he’d sung all the traditional carols and they hadn’t done him any harm. Silent Night! he said. God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman! I responded.

Traditional carols: the tunes are good, and the mythology is rich. What’s more, these songs, music and lyrics, have meaning in the wider culture. There’s something there to sink one’s teeth into, to enjoy the lure of, and to resist and criticize. What will “Comin’ Down the Chimney When He Comes” teach Eila about anything? Is it in any sense a stretch for a growing mind?

Some time after this, I went in for my parent-teacher interview (about which more in an upcoming post) and found myself trying to explain my position to Mrs. M. The experience was surreal. If I’d been stating one of the two acceptable positions – either (a) that as a Christian I thought schools should teach Christian truths, or (b) that as a non-Christian I thought schools should be more inclusive, teaching Chanukah and Kwanzaa and the secular “happy holidays” – the sailing would have been clear. But how do I explain that I am emphatically not a Christian, that I am also not a fan of namby-pamby multiculturalism or recently invented traditions or DIY spirituality, that I thought the worst choice of all was all this Santa stuff without any religious backing, and that I saw no solution to the problem except teaching them to sing God Rest Ye — which, you know, is quite beautiful. I found myself veering around, saying things like “Santa without Jesus is materialism” (duh!) and also “I’m not going to give her Christianity, so I want you to [so I can take it apart at home]” (not so duh). Poor Mrs. M.

Another mother later told me that Eila is the only non-Christian in the class, and one of only three kids who don’t believe in Santa Claus (the other two being a Dutch Christian and a Jehovah’s Witness). She knows this because the small group of mothers who volunteer in the classroom (and who compare notes a lot) was asked at one point to help the kids write letters to Santa. Apparently all three of these kids were up front about not believing, and all three have been great about not bursting the other kids’ bubbles.

Meanwhile we are practicing “The Twelve Dogs of Christmas” every day. It is quite difficult, and I see that if it does not enable Eila to catch a cultural reference to lords a leaping, it will at any rate teach her to recognize eleven common breeds of dog. That’s something.


10 thoughts on “Xmas dilemma

  1. I’m with you on the Christmas carols. In my London Jewish day school, I remember our class following some sing-a-long radio program, but the teacher telling us to stop singing whenever a Christ-referencing song came along.

  2. Aren’t they all Christ-referencing in the end? But I guess some of them are more obscure. Enough that you could read them in a Levinasian way: “a child is born” as a reference to an aspect of alterity. Har!

    I don’t have the sense that Santa is obligatory. I think such matters are left up to the discretion of the individual teacher or school principal. Maybe within vague guidelines about not being too religious? I’m not sure. Btw, I noticed that on the calendar at school Mrs. M. had Kwanzaa marked but not Channukah. An oversight, no doubt, excusable in a class of 16 Christians and one half-Jew-half-nothing.

  3. And why didn’t Eila pipe up in class about wanting to leave a note for the self-invented, yet somehow still mystical, MidWinter’s Teddy?

    Did she explain to her teacher that instead of Santa we celebrate real important people, like Sappho, the ancient Greek lesbian poet?

    Ahhhh St. Catharines.

  4. I’m sensing here a gentle reference to my own DIY ritual traditions, and thus to my hypocrisy. Caught again! And revealed to the world as more confused than clever.

    But I’d forgotten all about Midwinter’s Teddy! We must revive him, and put him into dialogue with Sappho. I’m sure they’d have a lot to say to one another.

  5. I’m with you – I like my X-ian holidays old school, not all moderned up. Yech.

    Maybe what Eila is getting is a sense of irony! Though I suspect she won’t lack for it. Now you’re left in the weird position of educating her about Olde X-ianity.

    Seriously though, old Christian music is the number one reason to ever consider converting. Number two is kitsch like perpetually bleeding Jesus fountains.

  6. I agree that the old songs have more soul and history, and I prefer their upfront connection to the Christian story, rather than these metonyms that dance around it with their jingling bells. Since my kids go to Jewish day school, my main bear this year is with Hannukah — which, in Orange County, is simply Christmas by other means!

  7. Well now that you mention it, Hannukah is a problem too. Because it *is* Christianity by other means — I mean, Xmas forced Jews to start giving presents this time of year, and Hannukah has become about presents as much as Christmas has.

    Even more problematic are the bloodthirsty quality of the back-story, and the barbarism of the Hasmonean regime. Maybe we should just stick with presents and the “Hannukah Bush,” and try to forget what the holiday’s really all about.

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