We were four adults and two four-year-olds—twin boys—sitting around the dining room table one Christmas Eve. Dinner would soon be served, but for the moment, we’d light the Chanukah candles in the menorah in the center of the table. Ben, the father of the twins, struck a match. A little prayer was said. It was the sixth day of Chanukah.
Then we ate.
After dinner, my wife and I cleared the table while our daughter-in-law Julia took over. She’s Irish-Catholic from Boston. She proceeded with a Christmas ritual I’d never seen before.
“Now we set out some food for Santa,” she told her boys. “He will probably be hungry when he comes. He has so much to do.”
She brought out a plate of lemon cookies and carrots and a glass of milk, then led the way to the living room, where she set the milk and snacks on the coffee table in front of the fireplace. Lights glowed on a Christmas tree off to one side. Julia then handed the boys two big red-and-white stockings and instructed them to place them on the hooks next to the fireplace.
“Santa will place candy in there,” Julia said.
Ben left and returned with two heavy blankets. He handed one to Julia and, in unison, they bundled up two boys and swooped them up into their arms, one to a customer, to march with them out into the bitter cold of the back yard. What was this? We grandparents followed.
Julia and Ben stopped. Only the boys’ faces were exposed.
“Look up,” Julia said. They looked. “See Santa?” It was a dark sky full of stars. There was a crescent moon. All was quiet.
“Well, he’s not there yet,” Julia continued. “But he’ll be coming along soon.” She paused. “I think it is time for you two to be in bed.”
With that, the boys were carried back inside and up the stairs to their bedroom. We stayed behind. There were brief going-to-bed noises, then silence. Soon Ben and Julie tiptoed back down.
“Time to wrap the presents,” Julia said conspiratorially.
The presents appeared, along with giftwrap and bows and Scotch tape. We all sat on the living room rug and wrapped. There were very many presents. Owen and Abraham had been really, really good boys.
We talked in whispers.
“I’ve never seen a ritual like this,” I told Julia.
“That’s how we did it when I was growing up. No Chanukah, though. You? Did you celebrate Christmas?”
She knows I am Jewish.
“When I was a boy, my parents celebrated both holidays. We had a Christmas tree and a menorah. But it was like 80% Chanukah and 20% Christmas. When I raised my kids, it was 20% Chanukah and 80% Christmas.”
Ben is my wife’s son.
“We never celebrated Christmas,” Ben said. His late father had raised him Jewish.
“It was all Chanukah.”
Hmm. My wife is a Presbyterian from Pennsylvania. Classic Christmas out there: Christmas tree, presents, carols. My wife looked at Ben.
“We did have a Holiday Camel,” my wife said.
“What?” I asked.
“A big stuffed camel, five feet high, with presents in the saddlebags.”
On this night, we wrapped Legos, matching scooters (but in different colors), games and many, many books to be read aloud. When we finished, we stacked everything beneath the tree and went to bed.
At 6 a.m. Christmas morning, I woke up in the guest room off the kitchen and tiptoed out so as not to wake Chris. All was quiet. Dawn was breaking. In the living room, I found there were three cookies left and one and a half carrots left. Some milk had been drunk.
Nobody else was up. I sat on the sofa facing the fireplace and started writing this story. What liars we are. Here are two kids who believe everything we tell them. Is this fair?
After a while, my wife appeared in her pajamas. And soon Julia appeared, coming down the stairs with one of the twins, Owen, but not his brother, Abraham. Owen ran into the living room where I was and looked around.
“Did Santa eat anything?” I asked him.
“Of course,” he said. “He always does.”
Soon everyone else arrived. What a merry, merry Christmas.