Monday, December 16, 2013

The Christmas Menorah

By Kristen Coyne

My daughter, now 13, has been raised a Unitarian Universalist since the age of 4. I’ve watched UUCT shape her, support her and challenge her in many ways over the years. This holiday season brings to mind one of my favorite “UU” stories about Omie that I think illustrates so many of the wonderful things about our faith. Let’s call it, “The Christmas Menorah.”

It was December 26, 2006, and the booty of the previous day was still piled on the living room couch. We were cleaning up the yuletide detritus—my husband, Sean, vacuuming up Christmas tree needles, Omie pulling out the skirt from beneath the tree to shake outside —when Omie gasped in surprise.

“Momma, momma!” she cried. “There’s another present under—and it’s from Santa!”

Clad in her new robe and pajamas, she hugged a box wrapped in red to her chest. She didn’t need to read the tag to know it was from Santa. She recognized the wrapping as the paper Santa had used on his presents that year.

“Oh, my goodness,” I exclaimed. “Where did that come from?”

It had been lost under the tree, she explained; she discovered it while cleaning. After studying the words penned in Santa’s distinctive block script on the tag —“To Omie, Love Santa. Ho, Ho, Ho!”— She tore off the wrapping to reveal a blue and white box bearing a photo of the familiar holiday item contained inside.

“It’s a menorah!” she shouted, more thrilled than she’d been at any point the day before. “Thank you, Santa. You’re the greatest!”

My husband and I are not Jewish, although I can claim a bit of Jewish creed: I worked on an Israeli kibbutz for half a year; my Irish surname is sometimes mispronounced as Cohen; and, of course, Judaism is part of the religious smorgasbord we’re exposed to at UUCT. Still, none of this quite qualifies us as Jews. My husband comes from Irish Catholic stock and I from Norwegian Lutherans.

However, sometime during her sixth year, Omie had decided that she was Jewish.

I cannot say where this conviction came from. Perhaps from our laid-back attitude about faith at home, or from the time in kindergarten when she ate scrumptious latkes fried up by a classmate’s mom. Or maybe it dated to a lesson about the Jewish festival of Sukkot one Sunday at UUCT. She informed her teachers that day that she had made a sukkah (a kind of temporary hut constructed to celebrate the fall holiday) at home and that she was Jewish, responding indignantly when classmates doubted the claim.

Not that my child’s newfound Jewish identity was going to interfere with her Christmas that year. Early in December she had made out her wish list: Polly Pocket dolls, a Chinese outfit, a locket, a robe, pajamas, and a bow and arrow.

This list notwithstanding, Omie had begun to suspect that there actually was no Santa. “Dad,” she asked the week before the holiday, “Tell me the truth. Do you buy all the presents?”

“No, I don’t buy all the presents,” Sean answered, managing to tell the truth and preserve Santa’s cover at the same time. Omie seemed reassured and dropped the matter.

Two days before Christmas, as an exercise in spelling and penmanship, I suggested our daughter write an actual letter to Santa. I promised I would mail the letter from the post office that day and that it would reach Santa before he left on his Christmas Eve journey. She composed her note at the kitchen table, folded it up, and slid it into an envelope addressed to Santa at the North Pool.

The missive was short, sweet and entirely different from the one that had been posted on the fridge for weeks. She asked that Santa help the poor, and kindly included a plug for mom, who wanted a new pair of bike shoes. For herself, Omie requested just three things: a dolphin purse (the same one Santa had given her several years earlier, which had been missing for months), a dreidel and a menorah.

My heart sank: There was no way Omie would receive any of these items. Replacing the unique purse purchased years earlier was impossible. The dreidel was a definite no: I had bought her one a few weeks earlier which she had promptly lost, a carelessness I could not allow even Santa to reward. And a menorah! The prospect of finding a menorah after Hanukkah had ended in a small southern city with a modest Jewish population was not promising. Besides, I had finished my shopping and, on a tight Christmas budget, did not want to buy anything else. There was no time left for shopping, anyway; we were busy preparing for UUCT’s Christmas Eve pageant, in which my daughter had a part as an angel.

The pageant was a delight, populated by cute, little shepherds, glittery white angels sporting butterfly wings and a beautiful Mary. As a golden star dangled from the end of a bamboo pole above a manger, we listened to the story of Jesus’ birth. We sang familiar carols and lit candles in the darkened sanctuary.

Omie told in song the story of the role that angels play in the nativity:

“If I were an angel with halo so bright,
I’d light up your way,
I’d journey with you through the dark of the night
‘Til sun delivers the day”

The minister praised the beauty, depth and mystery of the nativity story. Many in the audience might not believe in it literally, she said, but the story gave us much to reflect about and in that wonder, she explained, was great power.

 “Santa came, Santa came!” Omie pounced on me with her news early the next morning, pointing to the proof: presents under the tree, the stockings stuffed, crumbs and an empty glass where milk and cookies had been put out the night before. Omie opened her packages—the straw Chinese hat, softball glove and bow and arrow from Santa, the Barbie laptop from Aunt Katie, the Walkman and socks from Mom and Dad, the cooking set from Grandma.

She was happy with everything. We passed the morning learning to operate the electronics and playing catch in the yard.

But something was nagging at Omie. “Dad,” she asked later in the day, “did you buy the presents?”   My husband hesitated, teetering between fact and myth, unsure which was right.

“Of course he didn't buy the presents,” I interjected before he had a chance to spill the beans. “Santa brought the presents.” My tone made clear the matter was to be dropped.

Part of my daughter did not believe. But another part needed very much to, and fought to quiet the doubter in her.

But as the day went on, the facts lay cruel siege to her imagination. She learned during a phone call to her aunt overseas that Santa had skipped her home in Indonesia. When Omie visited her grandparents that afternoon, she discovered Santa hadn’t been there, either. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t fair. Beginning to feel like Santa’s apologist, I came up with what I thought was a pretty convincing explanation.

“Santa is for the kids,” I told her. “Grown-ups can buy what they want anytime. But kids can’t. So Santa is special—just for kids.”

She seemed to find the explanation plausible—but just barely. As I tucked her in later that night, Omie seemed exasperated, weary. “I just don’t understand Christmas,” she sighed.

What else could I say? How could I tell her the truth, yet preserve Santa and all the good he represents for at least another year? I decided to borrow from what our minister had said during the pageant the night before.

“Christmas is a mystery,” I told her. “Santa is a mystery. No one knows for sure what it’s all about—no one can explain it. It gives you lots to think about, to wonder about, to explore in your mind and in your heart. Sort of like angels.”

I did not personally believe there were angels flying around with wings, in the way she had been outfitted the night before, I told Omie. But there were times in my life when strangers had intervened to save me—once on a cold, wet evening when I was hopelessly lost on a trek in the Japanese Alps, another time when I was stranded on a dark highway. Surely these people were angels. She, too, was an angel in my life, I told my daughter. She had brought me great joy; she was full of mystery.

This made her beam: At last an explanation that made sense, that rang true, that quieted her mind enough, at least, for her to fall asleep.

I cannot say why I needed my daughter to believe in Santa a while longer, to believe in the kindness and giving and hope that she clearly saw in that figure. But I did. And I believed she did, too.

Which is why, the next morning, after she and her father were safely out of the house, I began my quest for a Christmas menorah.

First I drove to a small specialty shop that I knew sold them, but they were closed. Back at home, I pulled out the phone book. Not surprisingly, the “Judaica” category did not exist. I tried calling a store that sold international merchandise: No, they hadn't any menorahs this year. Next I phoned a department store: They had had some earlier in the season but had long since sold out. The nice lady I talked to suggested the grocery story. An unlikely source, I thought, but worth a final phone call.

Bingo: The manager reported they had one menorah left, mixed in among the Christmas clearance stuff.

I was there in minutes. The menorah was not exactly the noble-looking candelabra I had envisioned, a silvery accessory featuring fine, tapered candles.  Instead I held a Deluxe Chanukah Electric Menorah, a white, plastic, made-in-China affair that came complete with nine royal blue 120-volt light bulbs.

Nevertheless, I was clutching what was very likely the last 2006 menorah available in all of Tallahassee.  So I happily parted with nine dollars on the half-off merchandise, rushed it home, wrapped it in Santa’s red “Merry Christmas” paper and slid it discreetly underneath the green sheet coiled around the base of our tree.

Later that night, as I assembled the pieces together, I professed consternation over how we could have overlooked the present on Christmas Day. Omie screwed in each of the nine blue bulbs, explaining to her father how the middle candle, the one perched atop the Star of David, was the servant candle, used to light each of the others over the course of Hanukkah’s eight days.

We placed the menorah and plugged it in. Omie scurried to turn off all the lights, including those of our Christmas tree, and the three of us sat in the glow of the nine electric candles. Gazing up at it in beatitude, Omie mooned, “Santa, you’re the greatest!”

By the light of our fire and that menorah, I read aloud to Omie before it was time to brush teeth and get in bed. Our daughter protested, as usual, but quickly turned obedient when reminded Santa was watching.

I brought the menorah to her room and found a home for it on her dresser. I loosened all but the servant candle, to serve as Omie’s nightlight. Shining above the Star of David, it filled the room with a magical blue aura. After tucking my girl in, I turned and saw that candle number No. 6 had lit itself back up; Omie and I gave each other a knowing smile, and I returned to the dresser to unscrew it again.

Snuggling in her bed, we stared for a while at the mysterious menorah, at Santa’s wonderful gift. Then Omie burst into song, picking it up mid-carol, and I joined her:

Star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light.

We sang it twice. She begged for more stories of angels, but it was late and time to sleep. Preferring, as is her habit, to sleep in total darkness, she asked me to turn off the menorah for the night, which I did before bidding her sweet dreams.

Later that evening, before turning in myself, I went down to check on her. I found the servant candle shining brightly over a soundly sleeping child. It was a thing of profound beauty and mystery.