Santa Claus, Jewish identity, and me

The first time I told my daughter the truth about Santa Claus, she was three years old.

She came home from child care full of excitement and anxiety, hoping, hoping, hoping she’d been good enough for Santa to come. We’d never really talked about Santa in our Jewish-Quaker household, though we did visit my in-laws for a secular Christmas celebration each year. But I looked at my child now, full of earnest hope and anxiety, and I knew I didn’t want her to see her Christmas gifts as some sort of reflection on her character or worth.

So at bedtime I said, tentatively, “You know, some people believe Santa Claus is real. Others believe he’s a story.” Saying something was a story was a common way of explaining things in our household. As the child of two writers, my daughter already knew that stories were important, even precious. To say something was a story was to describe it, not to diminish it.

This time, though, when I said Santa might be a story, my daughter looked right at me and said, “That’s not true.”

Faced with such strong conviction and will to believe, I didn’t press the matter, not then.

And I did quietly-if a little uneasily-relabel one of my husband and mine’s Christmas gifts to be from Santa, rather than us.

Lots of Jewish kids grow up wishing they could celebrate Christmas, but I don’t remember doing so, maybe because I grew up in a town with enough Jewish kids that schools closed not just for Christmas, but also for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the first couple of days of Passover. On the playground Jewish and Christian kids fiercely debated whose winter holidays delivered more presents, but the idea that we all should celebrate one or the other wasn’t even on the table.

[Menorah on table]

I did grow up believing in Santa Claus, though. I listened for sleigh bells Christmas Eve, opened a token gift beside a neighbor’s tree Christmas Day, and accepted without bitterness that of course Santa Claus couldn’t deliver any gifts to our house, seeing as we were Jewish and all. My family’s Hanukkah gifts were numbered by day and laid out on top of my father’s oversized stereo system, where my brother and sister and I could try to guess at their contents as we shook them and tried to see through the wrapping paper.

I don’t remember when I stopped believing Santa was real. I think it must not have been any one big moment at all. I just remember continuing to watch the usual round of animated Christmas specials this year, knowing they were stories, knowing they weren’t my story, and feeling no sorrow at either of these facts.

I did wish, though, that we could have had a few Hanukkah specials, too.

When I was 11, my mom brought home our first Christmas tree. She’d been at a party for work, and when the party was over they were going to throw the tree away. She told us she couldn’t let that happen, so she rescued the tree instead.

It was my first hint that maybe my mom, or the child my mom had been, was a little sad the Christmas story wasn’t hers, even if I wasn’t.

For me, the tree was an uncomfortable and alien presence, and I hung homemade paper strings of dreidels and Jewish stars on its greenery to make it feel less Christian. At 11, I liked being Jewish, and I had no desire to be anything else.

My brother, who was attending a private Christian kindergarten that year, loved that tree, and he cheerfully moved all our Hanukkah presents under it. I grumpily moved them back to my dad’s stereo, where I was sure God intended them to be. My brother moved the presents back to the tree again, I moved them back to the stereo again. I’m pretty sure this went on until the presents themselves were finally opened.

I assume God had more important things to worry about than where my family put their Hanukkah gifts, but this was never really about presents or trees. It was about identity. In America, Christmas and Santa cultural forces that pull everyone into the discussion, no matter what they believe.

A decade later, our second Christmas tree stretched from floor to ceiling and was covered with store-bought Christmas ornaments. It came with a new step family who laughed at the Hebrew words of our Hanukkah prayers, and with a new town where our family’s presence was enough to double the local Jewish population. The identity and cultural issues that raised could easily fill a blog post of their own.

[Menorah in front of Christmas tree]
[Menorah in front of Christmas tree]

My daughter didn’t continue believing in Santa forever, of course. When she was ready, she came back to me and asked for herself, “Is Santa real?”

She was five then, and no longer worried about being good or bad enough to get presents. Instead she was just trying to figure out how the world worked, what was true and what wasn’t true, as so many children are.

I gave her the honest answer her honest question wanted. With two years to think about it, I was less tentative. “Santa is a story,” I said. “A story that some people enjoy believing.”

For a little while after that she went back and forth between believing and not believing, sometimes at the exact same time. She repeated her question a time or two more along the way, but then she knew. Santa was a story. This wasn’t a great tragedy, for her or for us, and it wasn’t the beginning of some mysterious loss of innocence. Nothing was diminished by the knowledge that Santa was real, least of all my daughter’s sense of wonder.

In a universe where dinosaurs really did once walk the earth and planets really are spinning through the vastness of space, it’s hard to imagine honest answers to honest questions ever diminishing our sense of wonder.

But that’s not the end, not quite. Because it turns out all my honest answers had caveats.

Some people believe Santa Claus is real,” I said when my daughter was three, before I told her what I believed, that Santa is a story. Even when she was five, it wasn’t enough to tell her Santa was a story. I felt the need to add, “A story that some people enjoy believing.”

Of course they do, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that-except that I felt the need to defend the lie even as I told the truth. The reason is no great mystery. We all feel the pressure not to “ruin” Christmas for kids who believe Santa is real, no matter our traditions or what we ourselves believe.

Different families have different customs, something I’ve used to explain everything from screen time rules to why we have to wear shoes outside to who is and isn’t getting a slushie on the way home from the park. Yet I don’t ask other parents to make their kids put on shoes just because mine is wearing them, and I don’t expect other parents to get their kids a slushie after a play date just because my kid is getting one. The story of Santa is different from other stories. It’s the one story where we’re not content to respectfully let different families have different traditions and beliefs. It’s the one story that we all, even children, are expected to deny our own truths to protect.

That has implications for identity, too.

Or as Rabbi Ruti Regan put it in a twitter thread a few years ago, “It bothers me that Jewish children are expected to help Christian parents lie to their children about Santa Claus. Minority culture kids should not have to be afraid that they will face retaliation from majority-culture adults for saying things that are true.”

[Matza on cloth napkin]

Families have the right to teach their children to believe in Santa Claus. They have the right to celebrate the holidays any way they choose, and to take joy in doing so. But it’s not my family’s job to lie about our beliefs to protect your traditions, any more than it’s your family’s job to pack kosher-for-Passover meals so my kid won’t feel left out at the lunch table.

It’s a tricky, sometimes uncomfortable juggling act, this business of raising children in a world where not everyone believes as we do. Members of minority religions, along with those who don’t identify with any religion, already have a lot of practice with this act. Maybe it shouldn’t all be on us. Maybe it’s time everyone else take on their share of responsibility and juggling, too.

What I’m saying is, yes, listen for sleigh bells this Christmas Eve, if that’s your thing. Find all the magic and joy there is to be found in that, as well as in opening the presents your traditions say the sleigh and its driver will leave behind. We can all use magic and joy, and the fact that we find it in so many different places is wondrous, too.

Just stop asking the rest of to say that we hear sleigh bells, too.

Originally published at https://www.simner.com on December 23, 2020.

Author of the post-apocalyptic Bones of Faerie trilogy; Thief Eyes; more than 30 short stories; and the script for The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse video game.

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