A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, December 23, 2011

We Wish You a Merry... Something

"Just put the food wherever you can find a spot."
I struggle to comply, bumping shoulders with a hundred or so other parents. We are bracing ourselves for the peerless form of entertainment/torture/instant nostalgia known as a Kindergarten Holiday Program.  
As the first dissonant notes of "Rudolph" bombard my ears, I plunk a steaming plate of latkes on the potluck table.
I'm not really sure why I brought this particular contribution to add to the array of mac-and-cheese, peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches, and green-and-red-frosted cookies. Am I trying to make a point about diversity?  Am I just trying to use up the summer-farm-share potatoes that are sprouting in the pantry?  Or am I, in my irreligiousness, perversely insistent on the misuse of holiday traditions? 
Two days previously, I served up a similar tray of steaming, satisfyingly crispy-with-oil potato pancakes with apple sauce.  My neighbors and family dug in.
            "Ok, so tell us about Hanukkah," one of my friends prompted.
"Um." I felt a moment of latke-imposter panic. I muddled my vague way through the story.  Maccabees.  Oil to burn in the temple.  Only one day's worth, but it miraculously lasts for eight. The tale is a parable of hope in the face of fear, oppression and darkness.  But I was afraid I was getting the details all wrong, and mangling other people's beliefs.
Not that this was anything new.  I've been wreaking havoc on rituals all my life - although it never occurred to me to worry about it when I was a kid. Growing up, I happily wallowed in a cultural mishmash.  It was my not-at-all Christian father who played carols on the piano, because he's got a good ear for a tune, while Mom is 97% tone-deaf. It was my not-at-all Jewish mother who relished hot latkes, whereas Dad was not convinced that potatoes could masquerade as a main dish.  My father was a fan of big, burly-looking Christmas trees laden with skeins of lights, shatter-hazard glass baubles, and awkward craft projects created by my sister and myself.  Mom made black, dense, weirdly alcoholic-smelling Christmas pudding -- being British, she simply couldn't help herself. 
My cousins celebrated Hanukkah and were Bar- and Bat-Mitzvahed, but they came over for Christmas anyhow.  My grandmother, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, and my grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from Turkey, wrapped presents in red and green paper and shouted "Ho, ho, ho," as they came through the door.  To complicate my ethnicity further, "Fresco" was originally a Spanish name, not a Turkish one -- although I didn't learn this until years later.  When Spanish Jews became unpopular during the Inquisition, their more tolerant Islamic neighbors offered hope and sanctuary in the face of tyranny. 
We kids, of course, were big fans of Santa Claus, and loved making a huge mess with reindeer-shaped cookie cutters.  I also liked the secular version of the Christmas story.  It included a new baby, brave young parents, and a whole menagerie of animals.  It involved a bright star -- a symbol of hope in the darkness.
"… On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…"  Seventy-five little voices valiantly surge on, each in their own key, as Mrs. Claar kneels on the floor holding up cue cards in rapid succession.  "… two turtle doves…"
Mrs. Claar's kindergarten class is awash in paper poinsettias, Santas, and menorahs.  For all I know, my quarter-ethnically-Sephardic never-been-near-a-synagogue kids may be the most Jewish five-year-olds in the school.  Nonetheless, they've all been learning about traditions -- lots of traditions.  The other day the twins came home with crowns of paper candles on their heads. I was not previously acquainted with Saint Lucia -- thank goodness for Wikipedia.  According to legend, she took food to fellow Christians hiding in catacombs in Rome.  Her candles are a symbol of hope in the face of oppression and darkness.  The kids insisted on wearing their faux-candles up and down every aisle of the grocery store.  I hoped no one would ask me any questions.
It wasn't until I was an adult that I began to feel guilty about co-opting traditions that didn't belong to me.  Was I annoying people?  An irreligious Christmas, I know, offends some Christians.  I feel anxious about that, and at the same time grateful to my extended family-by-marriage, all much more religious that I will ever be, who have accepted me so unreservedly.  I love this season -- the warmth, the sharing, the music, the joy, the cookies.  I love selecting the presents and squirreling them away.  I like the tree, the lights, the chestnuts, and the snow. But I will never be a church-goer.
Borrowing a different religious tradition would be, of course, no better.  Over that first dinner-time batch of latkes, I asked the kids, "Does anyone in your class celebrate Hanukkah?"
They both thought about it.  "Abdul doesn't celebrate Christmas," Lizzy offered.
Well, no, I'm sure he doesn't. I see Abdul's mother every day at pick-up time, smiling and modest in her hijab.  I'm guessing he doesn't celebrate Hanukkah, either.  Maybe New Years?  Will Abdul's parents fill their house with delicious baking and roasting smells?  Will they buy some ribbons and fancy wrapping paper for New Year's presents for their little boy, big-eyed-adorable behind his glasses? 
I scan the rows of eager little faces, and there he is, two rows behind Lizzy, singing his heart out.  "…eight maids-a-milking, seven swans-a-swimming…"  So far, the songs have all been Christmas ones.  Non-religious ones, to be sure, but still… isn't there a solstice tune on offer?
The kindergarten concert is, in fact, taking place on the winter solstice.  What's more, it started at 11:00 - almost the precise moment at which the sun was scheduled to rise on this shortest day of the year.  From here on, the days will get longer -- and all of us in the far north will get just a mite less lethargic, less crabby, and less downright morose.  Solstice in Fairbanks is not just a minor celestial phenomenon - it's a mood-altering Very Big Deal. Moreover, it seems like it should be a holiday that we can all agree on.
Solstice customs make all other traditions look positively new-fangled.  From Amaterasu (Japan) to ZiemassvÄ“tki (Latvia), Wikipedia details thirty-nine different holidays centered around the darkest days of the year.  Many are old-new chimeras of ancient customs and more recent ideas.  Decorated trees, candles, gift giving, singing, and feasting are all solstice traditions that predate Christmas, so my religious ritual-pilfering is, in fact, rather broad-brushstroke – as is everyone elses.  The timing of all this merriment is not coincidental.  For ancient people in cold climates -- with limited sources of food, light, and warmth in the winter -- celebrations offered something they desperately needed, regardless of the details of their beliefs: hope in a time of fear and darkness.
I could be much more creative with my borrowing.  I could cover my doorposts with butter for the sun-goddess Beiwe.  I could leave a colander on my doorstep, or try spraying red bean porridge around my house to keep away ghosts.  Or perhaps I might run around the neighborhood singing and carrying a dead wren.
Or I could relax, brush the proverbial chip off my shoulder, and attend a concert at which no animal sacrifices are required, and the kids do the singing. 
The partridges and pear trees have finally ground to their climax, and the kids have started a new tune.  "All I really need is a song in my heart… food in my belly… and love in my family…"  Seventy-five pairs of hands are pantomiming the song in sign language along with the words.  Unexpectedly, I find my enjoyment crossing the line from semi-ironic to genuine.  "…and I need the rain to fall, and I need the sun to shine, to give life to the seeds we sow, to give the food we need to grow, grow…"
There's my little Molly, wearing a red shirt, red pants that are too loose and keep sliding down to show her underwear, and a long brown skirt on top.  "Did she pick her own outfit?" a classmate's mother asks me, grinning.  Her own son is fidgeting and making faces.  I nod, laughing.  There's my Lizzy, shyly pink-cheeked and relegated to the front row because she's a short kid in a tall family.  There's Alito. Therese… Kaya… Sneferu… Ta'kosha… Ayla… Jamal… John.
"…and I need some clean water for drinking…and I need some clean air for breathing… so that I can grow up strong and take my place where I belong…"
And there's Abdul, who I now realize is looking right at his mom and dad, both proudly in attendance.
"…all I really need is a song in my heart and love in my family…"
It's snowing outside, so even the brief allotted hint of solstice daylight is obscured.  But unlike our ancestors, we know the days will get longer.  We know the light will return.  Unlike many people out there in this small-large world, we know the potluck table is groaning with hotdogs-in-blankets, spaghetti, and latkes.  Not everyone is so lucky.  Not everyone has hope in the face of oppression, fear, and darkness.  Mentally, I estimate how much I've spend on gifts this year.  I double it.  And I vow that when I get home, I'll send it to Oxfam and Amnesty International.
The kids finish up their program with "Jingle Bells." They pour off the makeshift stage, still jingling. Moments later, I have one over-excited kid hanging off one arm, and one off the other.  I can barely move.  I look up and see a set of parents smiling empathetically at my predicament as they collect their own hyped-up kid -- Abdul. 
"Happy New Year," I say.  They return the good wishes.
            Then the kids and I line up to get some latkes.


  1. Loved this post and your blog in general. Where do you the find the time to write so wonderfully. I have two girls 4 and 5&1/2, and one day I would love for my girls to meet your girls and to see you again too. Happy Holidays!

  2. Thanks, Swati I would love to see you, too... and meet your family. It's been WAAAAY too long. And since you ask... I mostly write when I'm procrastinating and putting off the 8,000 tasks I SHOULD be doing, of course.