Shortly after my Scots Presbyterian mother died when I was nine, my Jewish father asked me and my brother and sister if we’d mind going to temple with him, rather than to the Unitarian Church we’d been raised in as a sort of compromise. We didn’t mind; in fact, I think my brother and sister and I looked at it as a step up in class, since our Jewish friends seemed both smarter and more sophisticated than the rest of us. So we started going to Friday-night services, attending religious school on Saturdays, and proudly suffering through the annual 24-hour fast of Yom Kippur. Later, we participated in Jewish youth groups, and we were all confirmed in 10th grade. Through it all, we never heard any anti-Christian attitudes, either from our dad or from anyone else we knew. No, I developed them on my own, when I married a Methodist pastor.
Tim and I had first met, briefly, while he was working at a church in upstate New York. Almost immediately after that, the bishop had moved him, his beautiful, young wife, Janet, and their two kids to Long Island.
Just weeks later, Janet died in a car crash there.
As Christmas approached a year later, Tim called to ask me if I would come with him to a Christmas party in Long Island. We’d been corresponding regularly via e-mail, starting with a sympathy card I’d sent him. Now he and his kids would be near Albany, and they could pick me up on their way back, and I could stay two nights in his parsonage, while my own daughter was with her dad. I said sure. At that point I really didn’t know the boys very well. The 12-year-old, Jon, had a personality that is now described as being “on the autism spectrum,” which is another way of saying he was “awful.” The 10-year-old, Sam, didn’t know much, but he knew one thing better than anyone else in the world: how to push Jon’s buttons. I had been warned about them: They had developed a reputation in Greene County for misbehaving in church in a way that people found memorable. Apparently, with their mom singing in the choir and their dad up there at the pulpit, there was no one available to belt them.
But now it was Christmas, and after being divorced for several years, I seemed to now have a “boyfriend” – one who loved and respected Jews and their history, who read and wrote ancient and modern Hebrew, and who understood and tried weekly to communicate to his congregants the essential “Jewishness” of their religion. As we started on our journey, I was feeling peaceful and happy.
The boys, however, were not. They were yelling, shoving each other and kicking the back of my seat. I waited in vain for Tim to pull over and beat the crap out of them.
“Jon, stop annoying Sam,” Tim sighed every now and then, glancing into the rear-view mirror.
“I hate him! I hate him!” Jon shrieked in reply.
“He keeps putting his foot on my leg!” Sam said. “And I’m going to kill him!”
“Sam, why don’t you just play your videogame and ignore him?”
“I’m trying to, but he won’t stop!”
“He’s on my side!”
Tim had a rusty, 24-year-old Crown Vic whose suspension made me feel as if I were riding on an under-inflated exercise ball. It smelled like old food and there were sticky spots on the seats, floor and even the tattered ceiling, from candy that had dried there.
We headed down the pitch-dark Taconic Parkway in the middle of some kind of annual deer migration. The road was snowy and slippery and sleet was falling hard. The wipers were doing about as much good as if someone were scribbling with two pencils on the windshield. But that wasn’t the problem with this Christmas trip: The problem was that it was Christmas.
“Hey, I know!” I suggested cheerfully. “Let’s sing Christmas carols!” Silence. “Ohhh …” I began. “The weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful….” Nobody else was singing.
“That’s not a Christmas carol,” Tim informed me.
It wasn’t? I was surprised. Maybe “carols,” technically, had to involve Santa? Sleighrides? That kind of thing? I tried again. Ahem. “Sleighbells ring; are you listenin’?/ In the lane, snow is glistenin’ …”
“That’s not one, either.” Sleighs aren’t Christian? I’d never seen a Jew in a sleigh. Only Santa — the biggest Christian of all. But now I was trying to think of a real, actual Christmas carol that really, actually mentions Christmas.
Ahem. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas …” Silence. “Come on; everybody sing! Come on! Just like the ones I used to know…” No takers for White Christmas. Well, how about one everybody knows and loves? “Have a holly-jolly Christmas,” I sang. “… And in case you didn’t hear,/ Oh by golly, have a holly-jolly Christmas, this year!”
Tim claimed not to know it. “Tim! ‘Holly-Jolly Christmas’! You don’t know it? It’s, like, one of the most famous Christmas carols of all! Burl Ives! Come on! You don’t know it?” Sam and Jon now were supine, kicking each other, the backs of our seats, and the roof of the car. Jon’s legs were longer, and every time he missed Sam’s head he would kick, instead, the window on Sam’s side of the car. Hard. I kept looking at Silent Tim; I hadn’t yet learned that such tried-and-true solutions are not in his playbook. Instead, he used a threat that’s tied with about 4,000 others for the most severe he’s ever uttered: “Jon, if you keep it up we’re going to have to negotiate around your sleeping at your friend’s house on Friday.”
I had recently developed a herniated disk in my back that did not like being kicked. Distraction needed! Lights flashed in my brain: Christmas emergency! Think of something! The perfect song came to me: “Oh, you better not pout/ You better not cry/ You better not shout/ I’m tellin’ you why …” Instantly, the boys stopped fighting and joined in a rare display of solidarity. They sat up and yelled in unison, “We don’t believe in Santa!”
I was shocked. I looked over to my new boyfriend, the professional Christian, for support, but he was just staring at the road. I was on my own.
“You don’t believe in Santa? Why not? Because you can’t see him? You might as well not believe in love!” I gave them a really close paraphrase of the famous New York Sun editorial, pouring my heart and soul into it. “Santa is the spirit of love and goodwill toward others! He’s there whenever you feel kindness and generosity! He’s …”
“No; that’s Jesus!” Tim muttered through gritted teeth. “I hate Santa!”
“He’s the competition!”
Well, I’d never thought of that, but excuuuuse me! Excuse the only Jew in the Crown Vic for showing some Christmas Spirit, OK?
“I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was three!” Jon bragged.
“I stopped around two,” Sam said, “right when I was learning to talk!”
“You couldn’t talk til you were two? You’re retarded!” Jon said. “And anyway, I never really believed in Santa Claus at all!”
“You’re a liar, Jon!”
I decided to intervene. “Well, I’ve always believed in Santa!” I said. “Santa is always there; all you have to do is be good to others …” “No; you’re thinking of Jesus,” Tim insisted. “It’s Jesus who knows whether you’ve been bad or good, not Santa.”
OK, now he was over the line. “Actually,” I informed him, “if you want to get very, very technical about it, it’s God.”
Tim looked at me and smiled. “Touché,” he said, squeezing my mittened hand.
“He knows when you are sleeping,/ he knows when you’re awake,” I sang. Then I improvised, still singing, quite loudly in Tim’s ear: “…He’s really just like Jesus, but with toys, for goodness’ sake!” We enjoyed about 10 seconds of peace before Tim swerved sharply. We’d missed a bounding buck by the length of about an antler and a half.
“I hate you!” the boys resumed shouting at each other. “You nearly made daddy drive off the road!” “No; you did!” “No; you did!”
I closed my eyes and sang in a whispery voice beneath the din: “Have a holly-jolly Christmas/ It’s the best time of the year…” I rubbed a fist-sized space in the fog on my window so I could look up at the star-prickled sky as I slid across the Whitestone Bridge and hurtled into Long Island with this good man and his two motherless children, toward a new marriage and a new life that neither Jesus nor Santa nor God had promised was going to be easy.