Sayed Kashua Struggles With the December Dilemma

I feel as if I’m abusing my kids, when it comes to national and religious identity. Would it hurt so much if they were to celebrate Christmas, like everyone else in this country?

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
An illustration showing a row of green houses. All but one have Christmas trees inside.
Sayed Kashua's December dilemma. Illustration. Credit: Roei Regev
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

Christmas. All around you, everything is themed to conform to the holiday. The houses in the neighborhood have been decorated with colorful lights. Some of our unseen neighbors have placed illuminated dolls and figures in the front yard, others have made do by winding strings of lights around the columns on either side of their front doors.

Our house is exceptional for its darkness. Finally, I can identify it easily when I return home after dark. It gets dark here very early, but there’s no snow, which makes the holiday atmosphere a bit darker.

Christmas without snow? Not a day passes without people mentioning their frustration about this sore subject on television. And on TV, everything is about Christmas, on all of the channels, on all of the adult shows, but mostly the kids’ programs.

Christmas is relentless. It’s around the clock. I sit with my little ones in front of the TV screen and we watch movie after movie after movie. Santa Claus has been resurrected, because it’s all a matter of faith, and a society in which the children at least believe in him is by definition a more unified, family-oriented, psychologically healthy society.

So, there seems to be a reason to deceive children and plant in their little hearts belief in the possibility that Santa does in fact exist. I don’t remember even one time, when consuming an infinite number of TV shows lately with the children – who are on “winter break” – when Jesus, Christianity or Bethlehem were mentioned. No, it’s almost all about the North Pole, where Santa was born.

Mainly, this is a holiday that has to do with decorating a tree, which humanity is obligated to do if it is to feel at home and at peace with itself. The lit-up trees can be seen through the house windows. We don’t have one. Sometimes I wonder: What are the children thinking? And sometimes I wonder why the hell I’m not buying a tree like the other neighbors. After all, there is no mention in Christianity of Christmas trees, and even if there were – is there any good reason why I shouldn’t be buying some red stockings? I already have the fireplace, after all. Why don’t I hang them there, like you see in the movies? And why shouldn’t I buy presents for the kids?

I could have easily surfed one of the Internet sites to find something like “the complete guide to Christmas,” and adopted a holiday, instead of some refugees.

Sometimes I feel as if I am abusing my children, at least when it comes to national and religious identity. In the end, someone is going to mark them as alien and peculiar, even if they themselves haven’t taken a position on self-definition. The majority that surrounds them will feel a moral need to do so in their place.

“Do you know what Islamophobia is?” I found myself asking my daughter, although I was sure that, as is her wont, she would ignore me and my insipid questions. But this time she surprised me: She pulled off the headphones and twisted her mouth with a derision that befits an annoying father whose expiry date passed years ago. “Obviously,” she said. “Every day I get asked in school: ‘So, tell us, how are things in Paris?’”

“And how do you answer them?” I said, beginning to get incensed, waiting for a question from my daughter, who had put her headphones back on and was now ignoring me in favor of another song by Drake.

May God forgive the Jews, they’ve torn us to shreds, thrown us to the dogs. Thanks to them, we are still dreaming of a nation-state that will work miracles and heal all the wounds – even if the dream isn’t practical. But perhaps that is the nature of dreams. But here, in the American Midwest, I’ve discovered that I am a dreamer. I always used to say that I didn’t dream at all, and if I did, I never remembered a single dream. I’d wake up in a panic without being able to recall any details from the nightmares that assailed me.

But here, I can finally understand what people are talking about when they talk about dreams. Last night I dreamt that I was walking through the center of town in the early morning, toward my car, Suddenly, I see a young man emerging from an alley that I had never noticed before. In his hand – there could be no mistake – is a transparent plastic bag with 10 hot pitas, which threaten to melt the bag. I walk over to the spot from which the Arab man emerged; I knew he was an Arab, he had a mustache. (What can I do? Even in dreams I’m sustained by stereotypes.)

Then I find myself entering an alley exploding with life, filled with bakeries and candy shops, just like in the Old City of Jerusalem. And people are coming out with beigeleh, the typical seeded rolls, and little pieces of newspaper with za’atar-and-sesame seasoning wrapped up inside. Others emerge with trays of hot knafeh pastries with the eagle logo of Jaffar Sweets. I march, astonished, into one of the bakeries; it’s clear to me that the merchants are Arabs, Palestinians.

I gaze at the shelves of breads, and suddenly, all of them become alien, Western. There’s no trace of Old City pita and beigeleh. The merchant and his wife most certainly think of me as an alien, I thought. But when I open my mouth and they hear my accent, they’ll know that I am one of theirs, and they will give me pita – except that I’m unable to say anything to the merchant, who is looking at me with hostility, to the point where I prefer feeling alien to the gaze that casts doubt on my identity. “I’m sorry,” the seller says to me with a wordless smile, “We only open at 5 in the morning.” I look at my watch, which reads 5. I wake up.

I’m going to be Santa this year, I decided. I shared my plan with my wife. I won’t come down the chimney and I won’t put on a red suit, but I want to leave presents near the wood-burning stove in the living room, and I want the children to wake up on the morning of the holiday and be surprised to find presents wrapped up in colorful paper and decorated with ribbons tied into bows.

“Do you also think they will hear the sounds of holiday bells when they open their gifts?” she asked sarcastically. And it wasn’t easy for me to admit that yes, in my mind’s eye, I had imagined waking up early Christmas morning, a gentle snow falling outside, with the children running with huge smiles down the wooden staircase, knowing that Santa would never disappoint them, and that he would always bring the presents they asked for.

“Can you at least ask them what they want?” I asked my wife, urging her to cooperate with the plan as I began to get dressed, heading out to the toy store.

“Where are you going?” she said, reproachfully.

“To make the children happy, to make a Christmas for them. What’s your problem? I don’t understand. Look at them, they have no idea at all where they are living. Sometimes my heart breaks when I think of them. So at least this Christmas they shouldn’t have to feel like aliens again. A few presents for the holiday – dear Lord, what would be the big deal? Can’t they this one time feel like the other children?”

“All right,” she said. “But everything's closed today."

"Why?"

"Because today is Christmas."

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