Who knew my son would learn the lesson of Christmas at a Jewish preschool?
Even though we're Presbyterian, not Jewish, I loved Temple Emanuel Preschool. More important, so did my three-year-old, Thomas.
Ever since his very first day when his teacher, Miss Karen, welcomed him with a big hug and had him cut shapes out of Play-Doh, Thomas couldn't wait to go to school.
He got to be fast friends with Josh, a redhead who liked trucks and digging in the sandbox as much as he did. The kids ate apples dipped in honey for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, learned to share toys and had a short Shabbat service every Friday with grape juice, challah bread and a Hebrew prayer.
Everything seemed to go along with what Thomas learned in Sunday school, and he took it all in stride. I felt a little silly that I'd worried he might feel confused or out of place because he didn't share his classmates' religion. After all, didn't I want to raise my son to understand that God is bigger than anyone and anything?
Before I knew it, it was December. Thomas was old enough to help us decorate for Christmas, and he really got into it...the strings of lights in our yard, the tree, the ceramic Santa Claus from his grandmother, our felt creche set.
I guess it should have occurred to me that the holidays highlighted the differences between our beliefs and his classmates', but it didn't hit me until Thomas started asking questions. A lot of them. How come he got candy canes and cookies at Christmas, but not foil-wrapped chocolate coins? The rabbi at Temple Emanuel, whose son was in the preschool, taught them the dreidel song...why didn't we have dreidels at home? Why did everyone eat potato pancakes called latkes at the Hanukkah potluck?
This was exactly what I'd worried about.
Now my son's confused, I thought. God, have I made a mistake?
One day Thomas brought home a large mat decorated with Stars of David. "Mama, this is for you," he said. "It goes under the menorah."
We didn't have a menorah. I slipped it under the red-and-green candles on the dining room table. "How's that?" I asked.
Thomas studied the Star of David drip mat, cocking his head quizzically. "Mama," he asked, "why don't we light candles for Hanukkah?"
"Because we're Christian, and we celebrate Jesus' birthday instead."
"It's our tradition. It's what we believe."
He had another question. "Does Santa Claus go to Josh's house on Christmas?"
"Josh celebrates Hanukkah, not Christmas. He gets presents for eight days instead of one."
"Can we celebrate Hanukkah too?"
"No, we celebrate Christmas."
I could tell Thomas wondered if he was missing out on something. After all, eight days of presents sounded a lot better than one.
I sat him down with our creche set. We arranged the animals and attached the star above the stable. "Remember what you learned in Sunday school about everyone coming to see the Baby Jesus?" I asked. I pointed out the three kings, the shepherds, Mary and Joseph.
"Mama, how come Josh doesn't come to church and Sunday school?"
Please, let me do a good job explaining this. "You know Josh and his family go to Temple Emanuel, right?" I said. "Well, our church and the synagogue have the same God, just different beliefs about Jesus."
Thomas stroked the felt figure of the baby and nodded. He seemed to accept my explanation.
Still I couldn't help wondering if I'd complicated things unnecessarily for him.
Then one afternoon he came bounding into the bedroom where I was putting away clean laundry.
"Mama, where God is?" he said, jumping on the bed. "Where God is?"
It seemed like some sort of riddle. "You tell me, Thomas. Where is God?"
Thomas jumped and laughed a bit more, then declared, "God is in my heart."
"That's right, Thomas. God is in your heart. Where did you learn that?"
"The rabbi told me."
"He's a smart guy," I said. "And so are you, Thomas." God was bigger than any church or synagogue. Bigger than a mother's worries. Big enough to fill a three-year-old's trusting heart.
I put down the shirt I was holding and hugged my son close, giving thanks for the unexpected gift of understanding. After all, who could have guessed that my son would learn the lesson of Christmas at a Jewish preschool?
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