I've never been particularly religious. I've got Canadian Quakers on my dad's side and Midwestern Protestants on my mom's, but growing up in '70s and '80s Los Angeles, whatever spiritual yearnings I possessed were satisfied via a consuming passion for "Star Wars." My best friend Jimmy was an altar boy at a church where they prayed to a spooky guy on a cross. I was fine with Obi-Wan.
But then I grew up and fell in love with a Beverly Hills Jewess, and we got married by a cool Reform rabbi who, unlike my mother-in-law, didn't mind that my first name began with the word "Christ." And now we have three kids, who, by mysterious matriarchic law, became Jews the moment they touched down at Cedar's Sinai. All of which explains how I find myself a big goy surrounded by Jews. My kids go to a school called Temple Israel, where they're drilled in Hebrew and the demands of their religious calling (nothing too major, just tikkun alum -- heal the world). At school, there's a name for families like ours: interfaith. The three kids and the wife, they're the faithful. I'm the inter.
All of which is fine, really. Even as I stubbornly remain nonchosen, I love that my kids are part of such a deep and durable tradition. I love that they're soaking up the high value placed on learning and argument, jokes and food. I've even come to love Shabbat at my in-laws' every Friday. And while I don't think I'll ever understand gefilte fish, and I've been to a few bar and bat mitzvahs that contradicted everything I believe about decency and goodness, on balance I have no regrets about being the flaming shaygetz father figure of a proud Jewish household.
Still, the interfaith equation does get complicated. The biggest hitch emerged in our carefree pre-parenthood years, back when our fiercest arguments were over where to get takeout. Even then, we'd hit a rough patch a few weeks near the end of the year. It was like clockwork. On the day after Thanksgiving we entered the Season of the Perpetual Bicker. The particulars are too boring to detail here, but let's just say we experienced irreconcilable differences over a holiday whose name shall not be mentioned. Turns out my lovely bride not only didn't celebrate this holiday but kind of hated it.
She was unmoved by the irresistible aroma of fresh-cut pine and unconvinced that decorating our very own miserable/sweet Charlie Brown sapling with glass balls and paper ornaments was a cultural, not religious, tradition. She failed to see the charm in my abiding love for Claymation Rudolph or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir holiday album.
I began to yearn for the tree, the cookies, the stockings. I had vivid sense memories of tiptoeing out of my bedroom in footsie pajamas, sneaking into the living room to behold the glittering, obscene pileup. As an adult, I couldn't write off all of that. I didn't mind ditching Easter and had no trouble donning a kippah every Friday or spinning a dreidel on Chanukah or reading aloud from that wacky Passover booklet about pestilence and frogs. But I found I couldn't go the extra step of abandoning the holiday whose name shall not be mentioned.
I began discussing our holiday plans with the neutrality and good cheer of a Fox News pundit. While my fellow besieged goyim got fired up in defense of God and faith and family, I felt the righteous call to defend the sanctity of superficial crap. I never gave two shits about tinsel before I got married. Now I wanted to coat our house in it.
And so we ended up where all bickering interfaith couples end up: couples therapy.
My wife picked the shrink. She told me not to make a big deal out of the fact that the shrink was Jewish. What, we should waste our time with one of the three non-Jewish psychiatrists in L.A.? And so we spent six sessions tromping recklessly through a minefield known in interfaith circles as "The December Dilemma." Never before have the emotional dimensions of a tangerine in the toe of a sock ever been so fully explored. I demanded respect for the tangerine. She demanded respect for going to the movies and eating Chinese food.
Eventually, we arrived at our bottom lines. No matter how superficial or secular the holiday had become, she argued, it was still Christ's birthday, and my beloved just couldn't be party to that. No tree, no mistletoe, no Santa. I took stock and realized ... none of that mattered to me, either. I didn't care about the trimmings -- they were mostly tacky and meaningless anyway. What mattered to me, as both a grown-up and a parent, was the make-believe. When I boiled it down, all I wanted was someone magical to break into our house and leave us cool stuff.
It began, like all holidays and superheroes do, with an origin story. Late one night a few years ago, we told our children, a stranger appeared on our doorstep. It was a chicken, a Bantam rooster with pure white plumage and an impressive red crown and wattles. He was from the Snowy North. And he came with good news: He'd visit our family with gifts and good cheer every year on this night onward. All we had to do is write our wishes on a note and burn them before going to bed. He'd fly over our house, reassemble the ashes and then, while we slept, haul our goodies into the house and pack them into pants hung over the fireplace.
Every year the holiday gets more elaborate. That's the thing about a customized holiday; since all the traditions were plucked from thin air, new ones materialize all the time. We now have a songbook of Winter Wonderday classics that includes a recording of "Born to Be Wild" with all-poultry vocals. While burning our wish lists, we now raise our voices in a song that includes a line written by 7-year-old Charlie: "Santa is fired from the job/ He gives presents like a slob." We've also begun the custom of leaving out a tray of food near the pant-festooned mantle -- Irving, the kids discovered, favors sunflower seeds and fruit juice. And we now go to great lengths to build a nest for Irving, the construction of which begins with a Winter Wonderhike to collect twigs and leaves, which we then stuff inside a ring of chicken wire (and which is mysteriously littered the next day with soft white feathers that look very much like they were clumsily extracted from an expensive pillow).
In recent years we've spent the evening with bowls of candy, frosting and cookie pieces, building entire encampments of Snowy North gingerbread chicken coops. And we've found that no Winter Wondereve is complete without a feast at Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles, where we delight in the combination of maple-soaked fried dough and the sacrificial body of our host.
Friends and family are mostly supportive, but it has been suggested that Winter Wonderday may needlessly confuse our kids or expose them to ridicule from nonbelievers. One can only guess what the playground alpha boys and girls make of our kids' wide-eyed reverie over the magical talking snowchicken who fills their pants with presents. I'm happy to report, however, that the kids take it in stride. To hear them tell it, our family has an exclusive contract with Irving, so it's no wonder that other kids might not understand, or even be jealous. And instead of keeping quiet about the holiday, they embellish it -- in their version of the myth, Irving works on an "ice farm" where all ice cream and popsicles are made and where he's assisted by an army of fluffy white helper chicks. On the way to school today, my eldest son, Charlie, told me Irving selected our family over all others because he heard my wife and I bickering about the holiday all the way from the Snowy North.
Charlie is a smart, sophisticated third grader, but when it comes to Winter Wonderday, he still believes. He buried his doubts last year after obtaining what he believes is definitive proof of Irving's existence. In the weeks leading up to the big day, we spent hours discussing plans to photograph or videotape Irving during his visit. The stakes were high, we understood. If the so-called Irving plot was discovered, our feathered friend might take back our presents and never visit us again. I rejected a proposal to stay up all night inside a hidden sofa cushion fort. Charlie accepted that we couldn't justify the cost of a motion-activated video camera. And so we settled on a more straightforward strategy. Alongside the 800-twig-count nest, we left a note and a camera. "We want to see what you look like! We hope your feathers are sturdy enough to push the button!" And lo and behold, we awoke the next morning to discover not only a bounty of gifts but also a blurry but identifiable Polaroid self-portrait of a noble white chicken that could only be Irving himself.
The kids are 8, 6 and 2 now, and Winter Wonderday is much more than an in joke (no Festivus or Christmakkah for us!). Several other families join us each year. An old friend has even begun marking the holiday with his interfaith family all the way in Maui. And the kids have begun evangelizing to friends, pointing out all the ways Winter Wonderday is better than that other holiday. Nests are more eco-friendly than trees. Unlike Santa, who is so busy with his Coke billboards and shopping mall appearances that he often forgets presents and leaves behind a mess of chimney soot, Irving is courteous enough to enter through the (tinsel-decorated) dog door.
And perhaps, most important, pants are way bigger than stockings.