When I was in the sixth grade at Jefferson Elementary, we still had public school Christmas pageants. The grand finale was a Nativity tableau. We sang traditional Christmas carols and there was a narration of the birth of Christ read from Luke, just like Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
The sixth grade was responsible for staging the Nativity scene in full costume, and parts were being cast by my favorite teacher, Miss Olson. I desperately wanted to wear the angel costume and wings. I hoped Miss Olson would just give me the part if I asked. “Oh no” said Miss Olson, “we need a blond girl for the Christmas angel, and anyway you’re too tall. Christine is going to be the angel. I want you to narrate, you’re a good reader.”
At that moment, I hated Christine.
Then I felt guilty. After all, it wasn’t Christine’s fault that she was petite and blond with blue eyes and a cherubic smile, and looked the part. Why can’t angels be tall, skinny brunettes with glasses? Does that mean everyone who doesn’t look the part can’t be a heavenly angel? Do you go to heaven and turn into a petite blond?
A question it didn’t occur to me to ask was what my Jewish classmates thought of performing in a Christmas program. I hope it included a Hanukkah song or two.
Hanukkah is not a particularly important religious holiday in the Jewish lunar calendar. The same secular marketing machinery that has commercialized Christmas has had a similar effect on Hanukkah, mostly because of the proximity of the holidays in early winter. Jewish kids would boast about getting eight days of presents while we Christians just got one day.
Having lost touch with the Jefferson Elementary Class of 1967, I called a recent immigrant to ask her about celebrating Hanukkah and surviving the Christmas season as an observant Jew.
Monika Wachowiak moved to Spokane last year from Crown Heights in Brooklyn, a neighborhood where being Jewish is culturally comfortable. Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of one day’s oil lasting eight days after the Maccabees recaptured the temple from the Greeks. The focus is not traditionally on exchanging gifts but on the light returning to the temple, and enjoying time with family. The tasty part is the fried foods, another reminder of the oil. Potato latkes, mmm mmm good.
When asked about her Hanukkah at Christmas memories, it turned out Monika had played the coveted role of heavenly angel in a Christmas pageant. She was petite with the curly blond hair of a classic Raphaelite cherub. Darn those stereotypes.
During her early childhood in the Polish immigrant community of Buffalo, New York, her family blended into Polish Catholic culture and lived as undercover Jews. Monika’s family secretly celebrated Hanukkah in a house decorated by a Christmas tree, accessorized with empty gift-wrapped boxes.
Her great-grandmother had experienced the loss of so much of her family to the evil of the Holocaust that she was terrified of being discovered. The local Catholic priest helped the family maintain its public Catholic identity and kept their Jewish faith a secret until the matriarch died.
Unfortunately, it turned out her great-grandmother was right about how close to the surface anti-Semitism was in Buffalo, and the family moved soon after.
Monika doesn’t live underground anymore. She is proudly Jewish. She is also proudly Republican, serving as a precinct committee officer and having just been elected a district leader in the 3rd Legislative District. Ironically, the primary source of sour notes in Spokane has been directed at her for her politics, not her religion. Darn those stereotypes.
The first of the eight candles of Hanukkah will be lit on Christmas Eve for only the fourth time in the past 100 years. For both Jews and Christians, this is a time to celebrate miracles and focus on bringing light into a dark world. Where stereotypes cast shadows, we can all be bringers of light. Even if we can’t all be Christmas angels.
Columnist Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SueLaniMadsen
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