During the winter holiday season (OK, Christmas season), I find myself reminiscing about years past when my kids were young. And I recall one year when Christmas envy was especially concerning to me.
Gabe, our younger child, was three years old at the time. We had hoped he would attend a Jewish preschool as his older sister Johanna had, but things didn’t work out. The hours offered by the preschool she had attended were not compatible with my work schedule or that of my husband. There were no other Jewish preschool programs within a reasonable distance from our house or jobs. So, we enrolled Gabe in a sweet and nurturing daycare center whose location and hours perfectly fit our needs. And as Christmas approached, I discovered that he was the only Jewish child in his class.
I knew that my kids would not be deprived of a meaningful and fun Hanukkah (once it finally arrived, overlapping with Christmas that year). We would celebrate at home with our family, at our temple with friends, and we would travel to see grandparents and cousins. Still, I was concerned. How would Gabe feel being the only kid in his class not celebrating Christmas, a holiday that loomed so large in the lives of his peers?
Starting the day after Thanksgiving vacation, Gabe’s friends were eating, drinking, sleeping and breathing Christmas. His wonderful teacher wanted to make sure that he did not feel deprived. For every Christmas picture or ornament the class made, she made one for Hanukkah. If they played a Christmas game, she created a Hanukkah game. I thanked her and explained that Hanukkah really isn’t that important. She doubled down on her efforts.
It was about a week before Christmas when I arrived at the end of the day for pickup. As Gabe and his classmates were putting on their jackets, I heard one child ask him, “What is Santa bringing you for Christmas?”
“We don’t have Christmas” Gabe said.
“What do you have?” his friend asked.
My ears perked up, waiting for his reply. We hadn’t gotten around to any Hanukkah preparations at home yet. Despite his teacher’s diligent efforts, would he actually remember Hanukkah which we had last celebrated a whole year ago? I wondered what he would say.
“We have Shabbat,” is what he said.
First, I smiled and then I cried. My heart still melts when I recall his response. I wondered why he said Shabbat when asked what holiday he has instead of Christmas. Why not Hanukkah, the obvious answer (at least to most of us)? And if not Hanukkah, then why not Purim with the costumes, hamantaschen and carnival? Or Passover with the search for the afikomen, the cousins and the greatest story of all time? Or Sukkot when we get to decorate and eat in the sukkah? Was it because we’d last celebrated these holidays anywhere from a couple of months to one year ago? That’s a long time from a young child’s perspective, while Shabbat comes every week.
I don’t know for sure why Gabe responded as he did. (I’ve asked him over the years, and he doesn’t remember.) I do know how fondly I recall Shabbat when our kids were young. Erev Shabbat was a cuddly family time when we lit the candles, blessed the grape juice and bread and ate together, usually at home, occasionally with another family. We sang a lot, which the kids loved. My husband and I were relaxed, knowing we wouldn’t be working or schlepping the next day. On Shabbat morning, we enjoyed services at our warm and tight knit temple with other young families and doting older congregants who couldn’t get enough of the babies and young children.
I remember happily anticipating Shabbat each week, as I still do, and feeling a relief from the stresses of the week (for the most part). Shabbat has been called an oasis in time. That’s how it feels to me: like an oasis in time that holds a special joy and magic.
Perhaps Gabe sensed that the special joy and magic that we create with Shabbat is what his friends’ families create with Christmas. And if we choose, we can create this every week!
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