It was startling to see this advice column in the Florida Times-Union out of Jacksonville yesterday, which begins with the sentence:
After reading the story of Virginia, Abraham had asked his mother, “Mommy, can we take down the Hanukkah things – just for tonight – so Santa Claus won’t know we’re Jewish?”
Not only did my son and I have the same conversation verbatim that day, but he is the same age and shares the same name. I don’t think the advice columnist had a hidden camera in our bathroom (yes, our family discusses many important issues while Mommy goes pee, don’t tell me it’s different at your house) and I couldn’t possibly have been the only Jewish mother struggling with the fat man in the red suit at that moment (although the name thing was weird. I’m checking the hole next to medicine cabinet for tiny microphones immediately.) I sure could have used her advice a day earlier, though.
You may recall that last year my kid threw me for a loop by having a big spaz over Santa bringing him a snake. I told him there was no such person, but no, he insisted he’d sat in the dude’s lap at the mall and was promised a reptile. By strange coincidence, a snake did make a brief appearance in the family, causing the boy to gasp gratefully towards heaven and whisper “Thank you, Santa!” Fortunately, the snake mysteriously escaped two days later, never to be seen again. Thank you, Santa.
I thought the incident was forgotten. Little did I know my son’s thirst for a snake was not slaked, nor was his determination to track down Santa to give it to him.
This Christmas Eve I participated in a babysitting exchange at the Presbyterian Church in Savannah. A few of their congregants had volunteered during the High Holidays so I could recount my sins in peace, so I felt the need to reciprocate while they celebrated Jesus’ birthday. (Of course, I didn’t share with any of my charges that the whole December 25 thing is
probably bullsh*t up for debate and was likely chosen for its proximity to the winter solstice, because that would have been obnoxious.)
While I was performing tzedakeh for Jesus, my son was visiting with some friends, two girls who have a deeply unreligious Jewish father and an athiest mother, so Christmas is basically the only holiday besides birthdays that they celebrate. Every year their Jewish uncle calls up and pretends to be Santa and threatens the girls that he’s going to skip their house if they don’t stop whining and annoying their parents. This year, guess who used up a nice chunk of Uncle’s cell phone minutes describing the color of the corn snake he wanted?
When I showed up fresh from my good deed and ready for glass of spiked eggnog, my atheist mommy friend intercepted me at the door. “Uh, we have a problem.” She told what had gone down and I brushed it off, saying, “Look, the kid already received a fish, a telescope, a skateboard and a really nice sweater for Chanukah. He and I have already been through this.” She shook her head and gave me the guilty look that mothers give each other when we know we’ve fed each other’s kids too much sugar or let them watch a PG movie. “I’m really sorry. Really.”
The minute I stepped over the threshhold my child accosted me with wild eyes. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy! You were so wrong! Santa isn’t too busy with all the Christian kids to bring me something! I just talked to him and he’s in Canada right now changing his reindeers’ shoes and he says he’ll stop by our house after he comes here!” He was waving a letter he’d written in his very best penmanship at the urging of his little heathen girlfriends, who insisted that Santa will come if you just believe hard enough and your handwriting is legible.
Dear Santa: I love you. I believe in you. Hope you can come by even though I’m not Christian. He’d spelled it “Kristchen.”
He spent the rest of the evening in serious conversation with the other children and any adult who would listen about whether Santa would make it. “I’ll just be so sad if he skips our house.”
Like I said, he and I have had myriad discussions about how special it is to be Jewish, why it is fine to enjoy the decorated trees and hideously fabulous lawn decor of others but inappropriate to bring those things into our house, and how Christmas and Chanukah are not two versions of the same thing (and how they kind of are, in that whole “light up the darkest days” kind of context.) I even tried to burst his first grade bubble and insist Santa was just other kids’ parents, but he started singing “Jingle Bells” at level 11.
But when I looked him asleep in the backseat driving back to the beach that night, clutching his letter, mouth stained candy cane red, looking more like the little boy I gave birth to than the know-it-all, almost 7 year-old who’s been showing up lately, a thought broke out of my grinchy heart clear as an icicle: I suddenly understood that his need to believe in Santa wasn’t about being Jewish or Christian, and it certainly had nothing to do with Jesus. It was the excitement of the myth of itself � the legend of a bearded mystery man traveling by sled from the snowy hinterlands to give out gifts.
My son didn’t really care what Santa brought him, just that his call didn’t go answered. He didn’t want to be left out of the magic, is all.
“Mom,” he said sleepily as I carried him � it will only be a matter of months before he will be too heavy for me to do this � up the stairs. “Will you leave out a few cookies for Santa, just in case?”
So, yeah, I did it. I commited the most egregious sin of all for a Jewish parent: I pretended to be Santa.
I took the new children’s DVD Athiest Mom gave me, slapped a bow on it and left it with a note on the kitchen table near a paper plate of crumbs:
Dear Abraham, I enjoyed our conversation last night. Here’s a little something for my Jewish friend. Keep believing, Santa.
The squeals the next morning were worth the agonizing I’d done all night. I even dreamed the Savannah Yentas came to revoke my Jewish mother license. Maybe if I’d read the advice of the Florida Times-Union columnist in time (Remember her? She wrote that the spirit of Santa is in selfless generosity, something we can bring into our homes all year long) I wouldn’t have had to resort to such charades. But I believe that preserving my son’s faith in the magical transcended my need to separate him as Jewish from his peers. He’ll experience being “other” plenty of times in his life, and I feel all right about letting him have Santa this one time.
Of course, his grandparents are absolutely horrified. “You’re sure you don’t want to send him to the Jewish day school next semester? We’ll pay.”
On Christmas Day, after spinning the dreidel with his sister and watching his new Hoodwinked DVD (adorable movie, btw) twice, he got on the phone with one of his friends to discuss the friend’s morning’s bounty. I could hear the excitement at being able to share that Santa had made a token visit, and he explained that Santa only brings Jewish kids one small gift because they get so many great things during Chanukah. I was feeling pretty good about my parenting skills until I heard him say coolly, “Oh yeah, I think he’ll definitely bring me the snake next year.”
Fat chance, kid.