There we were Tuesday night, a bunch of parents frantically emailing one another about the next day’s winter musical.
Our third-graders needed to wear plain black shirts and plain black pants, and some of us had just received this information for the first time.
“Target is open until 11,” one mom informed.
“I taped a piece of black paper over a Northwestern logo on my son’s only long-sleeved, black shirt,” I admitted.
(The little white Nike logo on his black sweats would have to stand. I had run out of black paper.)
The children would not be performing at Carnegie Hall. They would be performing in the school gym in front of adoring family members who would swoon and cheer with genuine enthusiasm regardless of their charges’ attire. (I’m always a puddle of tears before they reach the first refrain.)
In the end, I needn’t have bothered taping over the Northwestern logo. My son’s class sang a Kwanzaa song, and each of the students wore kente cloth scarves that beautifully covered his offending “N.”
“In Kwanzaa, we set our sights on becoming better citizens,” my son’s friend T.J. read aloud before they started singing. “We seize the day. We grab the brass ring. We reach for the stars. We jump at the sun.”
Other grades sang “It’s December Around the World.” (“It’s December around the world/ It’s December around the world/ Every girl and boy/ Sings a song of joy/ It’s December around the world), “Pickle in the Tannenbaum,” a folk song about hiding a pickle ornament on the Christmas tree, and a rousing tune that involved real maracas and sombreros made out of poster board.
We listened to a Hanukkah song. We were reminded of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. (Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.) We learned to say “Happy New Year” in Mandarin.
It’s a wildly diverse student body, and the school does a lovely job celebrating that fact throughout the year — with the books my kids are assigned to read, with the field trips they attend, with an annual Around the World night that invites families to set up booths and teach others about their native cultures.
Here’s the thing about the winter musical though, which resonated with me particularly deeply this year: It doesn’t dampen my son’s enthusiasm for Christmas in the least.
We get all balled up in this annual culture war over Christmas. President Donald Trump has been triumphantly proclaiming that his presidency will restore the beleaguered holiday to its former glory. “I told you that we would be saying Merry Christmas again, right?” he tells crowds.
Never mind that we never stopped saying it — at the White House, in shopping malls, in churches, on greeting cards, to neighbors and so on.
The point — my point — is that making room for other traditions, other celebrations, other faiths doesn’t take a thing away from your own.
It can, if you let it, deepen your understanding of the people with whom you share the Earth. It can, if you let it, help you see how very much we all have in common. It can, if you let it, bind you even closer to your own beliefs and traditions.
Several of the songs at Wednesday’s musical were about Christmas. There were kids in reindeer ears and Santa hats alongside kids in kente cloth scarves. Some kids, depending on their grade, sang in more than one number about more than one holiday.
I don’t think any of them left there feeling put out.
My son came home still counting the days until Christmas. Still eager to watch “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.” (We watched the 1951 “A Christmas Carol” starring Alastair Sim the previous weekend, and he was ready for a slightly less haunting version.) Still eager to see where our Elf on the Shelf would end up next.
Still knowing and believing the Christmas story.
We know our hearts are elastic. We know they grow and expand with no maximum capacity. We know they can feel full to bursting and still make room for more.
We know this when we have second and third and fourth children. We know this when we add new friends to our lives. We know this when we love people so much we can’t imagine loving them an ounce more – until we wake up the next day loving them an ounce more.
There’s room in our hearts – for other people’s beliefs, for other people’s traditions, for other people’s holidays. They don’t have to crowd out our own.
We should remember this in December, and we should remember it always.
Hearts don’t stop working when they’re full. They stop working when they’re empty.
On this, as I so often do, I find myself looking to children for guidance. And when love is the example I need, they never steer me wrong.