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December 31, 2008

Feliz ... Your Religion Here


It’s the last day of Hanukkah, almost New Year’s Eve, which we will spend shlepping from Grandma's in Indiana (aka “vacation capital of the western world”) back to NYC. It’s always a steep downhill slope from New Year’s Eve to ...  January (aka “the month the bills come”). All the holiday fizzy feeling has run out, the snow has ceased to be a novelty (if indeed there is snow at all: as I write this, in Indiana, it’s about 65 degrees and raining); life seems just gray and damp. The good news is that this year we have Barack’s Inauguration to look forward to, but even that joy is tempered: on the same day as the Inaugural, I turn forty-five (aka “the year fifty becomes all too real”).

True, the winter solstice has already passed, so the planet is tipping towards summer, but that is, as my mother likes to say, cold comfort.

Let me try to offer you warmer comfort for these cold weeks, in the form of the concert performed by the children at Liam’s elementary school. Twice a year (winter and spring) the entire student body puts on a chorale: each grade sings a few songs; there are performances by the fourth and fifth grade bands that range from hands-over-the-ears-terrible to all right; the entire student body performs for the grand finale, which is usually some medley of old pop tunes or maybe a show tune with an easy chorus. Going to these concerts is like finding yourself in a Kodak ad – even the most cynical parents (a group in which I include myself) can’t be unmoved by the sight of all those little people making music together.

This year, the concert featured a new segment: songs in Spanish, performed by the third-grade Spanish club, a group of about twelve kids who started this September taking Spanish after school. As the concert performance drew closer, there was some discussion about whether the kids knew the lyrics well enough to sing the songs – but it turned out that the problem wasn’t with the kids but with the lyrics themselves.

As part of their rudimentary Spanish, the kids had learned “Feliz Navidad” (aka, “the song you can’t get out of your head”) – and I knew that Liam knew all the lyrics because he’d been bellowing it at home for weeks: “feLEEZ NAveeDAH, feLEEZ NAveeDAH...” (my darling son, unfortunately, has no ear for accents or music, but is wildly enthusiastic about both).

Nope, the problem was with the song itself. Someone in the school determined that “Feliz Navidad” was too specifically Catholic or Christian or whatever – too nativity-centric, basically. But at the last minute, adjustments were made, the kids memorized the changes, and voila, they sang “Jingle Bells” in Spanish, and “Good Day” in Spanish (to the tune of “Frere Jacques,” another tune that is impossible to shake), and a version of Feliz Navidad that went something like this: “feLEEZ NAveeDAH, feLEEZ haNUkah...” and then, a little later on, “feLEEZ KWA-an-ZAH, feLEEZ NAveeDAH...” and so on and so on, through every chorus.

For some reason, these revisions made me laugh so hard I had to bury my face in my hands in order not to make a scene. After I stopped laughing, I started to wonder: how uninclusive would it have been to leave the lyrics alone? Does anyone really think of “Feliz Navidad” as a nativity song anymore, given that it’s on the twenty-four hour holiday soundtrack loop of every shopping mall in the country, starting the day after Halloween? Do I think this inclusive version of the song is funny because I was raised as an Episcopalian (question: does being a “lapsed Episcopalian” carry the same weight as being a lapsed Catholic? Or a lapsed Jew?) If I were Jewish, and they’d kept the original wording of “Feliz Navidad,” would I have felt slighted if “Dreidel Dreidel” (or something like it) weren’t included for balance?

I don’t know. Of course, I’m the mother of a third-grader who seems still to want to believe in Santa Claus, which to him is really only semantics – call it gelt, call it Santa, call it Diwali – they’re all just different names for the Holiday When Presents Are Given. I confess that my children have thus far been raised in a household devoid of spiritual instruction, which I know should be added to my List Of Parenting Failures. My boys don’t know the nativity story, don’t know the Hanukkah story, they aren’t quite sure what a church is for, and they are pretty shaky about what it means to pray. Is there a secular humanist songbook for the holidays?

As a result of my lame (okay, non-existent) spiritual teachings, “Feliz Hanukkah” was no big deal to Liam – it meant no more or less than “Feliz Navidad.” And in these dark December days, I am not prepared to wrestle with the existential question of whether it’s good or bad that to Liam it’s all the same song, just with different words.

It’s true that in the world outside elementary school concerts, the words we use to celebrate this season matter, but maybe, on this last day of Hanukkah and a week from Epiphany, we should consider whether Liam’s winter concert could be a model for us in the new year: as we ring in 2009, with our hopes and resolutions carefully arrayed before us, maybe we should hang on to the image of twelve earnest third-graders – all different shapes, sizes, and religions – singing “Feliz Hanukkah.” Their version of the song still cracks me up, but maybe I should take it more seriously. Maybe their religious mash-up is precisely what we should hope for in 2009.

This is an original post to the NYC Mom's Blog. Deborah Quinn can also be found at www.mannahattamamma.com


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