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."