Published: December 19, 2017
The main things I remember from Hebrew school are running circles around our classroom as our Polish teacher, Mrs. Bialogorski, yelled, "Rootzi, rootzi, rootzi" - the Hebrew command for "Run!" - and watching Holocaust movies. It seems part of a Jewish education is to hear tales of persecution. One of the first two-syllable words I learned was "pogrom."
So I wasn't surprised when I found a children's book about the mistreatment of Jews, and it's not unusual that it's become one of my favorite books to read to my son. The book is about the Golem, a mythical giant created from clay to vanquish the people of Prague, who believed the Jews were mixing the blood of Christian children with flour and water to make their matzoh. The Jews were already confined to a ghetto when the matzoh rumor began to swirl. When an angry mob tried to bust through the gates of the ghetto with a battering ram, the Golem saved the day.
[Santa and the truth trap I found myself in]
We had the book with us at dinner when I received a text from a mother in my son's first-grade class. My son had told her daughter that there is no Santa and that it is the parents who buy the gifts. She asked that I speak to my son about it.
"It's not right for him to share this," she wrote.
It wasn't the first admonishment we'd received this holiday season. A day earlier, we were waiting in line at a candy cane hunt when Santa went by on a firetruck. "Another fake Santa," my son said as he passed by.
"Can you not say that?" said a friend's husband, who is usually mild-mannered. "My son still believes."
My son does not. While my husband is Christian, we're raising my son Jewish. We buy a tree every year, and my son comes barreling down the stairs Christmas morning to find a pile of brightly wrapped presents, but Santa is almost an afterthought in our house, like buying a tape measure at the cash register, simply because it's there.
"We don't have an elf. We don't do the milk and cookies thing," I was telling a friend.
"Yes, we do," said my husband, who was standing nearby.
"No, we don't," I said.
Hence my son's confusion. It doesn't help that this year, he's seen Santa in a little hut in the Finger Lakes, a shopping mall upstate and on a firetruck in the Jersey Shore. Even I was having a hard time reconciling how this man could be so many places at once and yet still be prepared for Christmas up North.
A family friend, who was having a holiday party that included a visit from Santa, said she didn't want my son coming to her party if he was going to ruin the magic for the other children there. I knew my son and I had to have a talk. I needed to make him believe in Santa - before we were ostracized from everyone we know.
I searched the Internet for ideas on how to explain Santa to your child. One article was titled "A Lovely, Non-Traumatizing Way to Break the News About Santa." Another said, "There's a brilliant, heartfelt way to tell your kids the truth about Santa." I didn't need instructions on how to tell my son the truth about Santa. I needed articles on how to lie to him about it.
I decided to approach it directly.
"Buddy, you have to stop calling these Santas fake," I said.
"But they are fake," he said. "Where's their sleigh? Where's their reindeer?"
"Look, parents want their kids to think he's real."
"So parents want their kids to believe something that's not true?" he said.
I didn't know what to say. He was right. "Okay, even if Santa's fake ..." I said.
"I knew it!" He'd used the oldest trick in the book: State something as fact when you're really just trying to confirm it.
"I didn't say that," I said. "Maybe the ones down here are just reminders of the Santa up there, like the baby Jesus they might have in a church isn't the real Jesus, but it's to remind people ..."
I trailed off. I wasn't even making sense to myself.
"You can't stop what I believe," he interrupted.
"No, but I can try to stop you from saying it," I said.
The truth was, while I understood the concerns of my Christian friends - not wanting their kids to grow up too fast, keeping the magic and all that - I couldn't help but feel like my son and I were being viewed as pariahs who were ruining everyone's Christmas. An angry mob would soon gather outside our door.
I knew I couldn't stop my son from undermining Santa. He's 6. If it's in his head, it's out his mouth. I tried to convince him there really was a Santa, but I wasn't comfortable lying.
"It's not a big deal," my husband said. "You say the same thing you said about the Easter Bunny, and how the eggs appear, or the leprechaun on St. Patrick's Day and why you sprinkle pixie dust."
"Easter Bunny? I never said there was an Easter Bunny," I said.
"What about the tooth fairy?" he asked.
He had me. I had no problem lying about a tooth fairy. It made me wonder, did I resent Santa, this Christian icon who had managed to slip into my Jewish home, like a draft under the door? Or maybe I resented that Santa went to all the other children's homes when I was a kid but never came to ours. My son may have sensed that.
I put the issue to my friend, Doris, one of the wisest people I know. If my life's conversations were written in a notebook, those with Doris would be underlined and highlighted.
"He's so young to be giving up the magic of Santa," she said, with genuine sadness. "It's fun to believe."
I thought about when my father died in 2001 and how, when I went down to my parents' home in Florida four months later, I lay awake one night and saw lights appear on the ceiling out of nowhere. They danced up and down like moonlight reflecting on the waves, and as I watched, I knew it was my father making his presence known. It defied logic. It never happened again. But it reminded me of the enormity of things, of all the things we don't yet understand, possibilities of which we can't even conceive.
If that's part of the magic of Santa, I guess I can make room in my Jewish household for that.