Another Tale From A Bad Jewish Mother (Or: Santa and the Snake, Part 2)

santaIt 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.

14 thoughts on “Another Tale From A Bad Jewish Mother (Or: Santa and the Snake, Part 2)

  1. Yenta-
    I was really touched by this post- you really are a fine writer and captured the great problem that we have as Jewish parents- to what degree will we succumb to the pressure of THE HOLIDAY. My oldest son knows full well he’s Jewish, but the allure of the presents are just too much for him- he’s been nagging my ex for weeks about going to her relatives so he can get presents. (He knows he’ll never get anywhere with me on that issue) The younger one is confused, but then he’s three. I keep telling them that we don’t need to have Xmas because we get Shabbos every week, we get Sukkot, we get Simchat Torah we get Passover- and the Christians don’t get any of that- they only get one big holiday a year. And on some level I know that they understand it, but the way this holiday is marketed – to specifically get parents where it hurts is so indidious. I adimre your honesty in struggling with this and that you kept your sense of humor. Be well Yenta.

  2. Touching and well written. Brings back my own memories of a stocking filled with nail polish. My mother made sure to know it came from her, but I loved getting all the stocking stuffers and participating, if only for one year. I never had to do it for my kids, not sure why. They seemed more secure than I was at their age. Or, maybe it’s just that we make a bigger deal of Chanukah. We have an official Chanukah box that comes out each year, with all the “trimmings” including Happy Hanukah signs, lots of menorahs, and an electric one for the window. We have Chanukah bears who hold the “gelt”. We stack all the gifts on either side of the menorah and then count how many we can open in any one night. But, the bottom line is we’ve found a way to make our kids happy and appreciative of the little things. P.S. We write to the tooth fairy and “She” writes back as well!

  3. A poignant and witty piece of literature.

    BTW My best, good-ole-boy buddy’s son keeps a corn snake in the garage. Ya’ll are fitting right in down here. Fetch the truck, and we’ll go muddin’!

  4. My older son was never very interested in Santa. He was the only Jewish kid in his preschool class, and loved showing off his Hanukkah stuff to his friends. My daughter, on the other hand, who lives in a heavily Jewish community (we moved) and goes to a synagogue preschool, is absolutely OBSESSED with Santa Claus. She goes nuts for the Christmas stuff. Go figure. The way I see it, my kids have a Jewish home where we light the candles, celebrate the holidays and make Jewish education a priority. So, my daughter knows that WE are Jewish and WE celebrate Hanukkah. Santa doesn’t bring us Xmas presents because we don’t celebrate Xmas. That is made pretty clear to them. But, my daughter also knows that Santa is friends with all children, Christian and Jewish alike. Like you said, it’s the myth, not the religion.

  5. Oy, what a difficult situation. I think it’s interesting that the grandparents offered day school…. it seems to me that despite it sounding like an overreaction to the situation, in fact, it actualy would solve the problem on offer – that is, he wouldn’t feel like an outsider because he’ll be around kids who are not celebrating Christmas, and it will spare you having to have that conversation again next year. If I were in your place, I would definitely take the offer (of course, I’m sure he’d get lots of other good things from day school, too, but it’s one struggle less for bonus for him).

  6. Love this and I think you handled the situtation fabulously.

    I could have used your wisdom years ago before my litte one turned into the one who screams “I’M JEWISH AND SANTA ISN’T REAL!” every time someone asks her what Santa is bringing her for Christmas.

  7. Amishav ~ thanks for the props, yo. Right backatcha.

    Rhona ~ Our porch was as decorated as any of my neighbors’ and we have a menorah for every person, including guests. We now have two Chanuakah boxes full of chozzerai, including dreidel salt and pepper shakers! I tried, I did.
    The Tooth Fairy is what pushed me over the edge. She writes back at our house too, so how I make my son believe she was real and Santa wasn’t? Magic is magic when you’re 6.

    Rickey’s friend ~ There’s too many rusted our cars in the garage for a snake right now now, but maybe we can find one that comes in NASCAR colors?

    Meshuggeneh Mommy ~ Thanks for the empathy. Glad to know it’s not just my poor parenting that makes my child Xmas crazy!

    Kol Ra’ash Gadol ~ Right now we’ve chosen the diversity of public school rather than what we feel would be the isolation of day school. It’s a very small, insular community here in Savannah, and less familiar than the communities at large that both my husband and I grew up in — we’re used to being around non-Jews. Yes, we’ll have to work extra hard to teach our son “how to be” Jewish, but with Sunday school and a Jewish home, he’ll know his identity. But this could all change as he gets older…

    Orienyenta ~ Y’know, by the time my little girl comes of age, there’s no way her brother’s going to let her believe in Santa, so maybe I’ll make them both wear the Santa peeing on the menorah shirts in a few years…

  8. Hey Head Yenta, this is Dan from the CMI giftshop (and before that Starbucks and before that temple on RH), I love the way you write and this is a really sweet story, loved reading it. I just tell my kids that Santa is really a rabbi who’s moonlighting ’cause his shul is low on funds. My 16 year old actually thinks this is funny (or laughs politely at any rate), actually I stole that from Nathan Englander. By the way, don’t write off the day school, it may be more diverse than you realize — at least come by sometime during the school day and check things out (I’m sure they’d be glad to show you around), if you haven’t already. Two of my kids are there & the polite one who laughs at my Santa joke is a distinguished alum.

  9. Funny story at a Temple in Salt Lake City Utah on the last nite of Chanukah 22 Dec. 06
    a converstation between 2 small boys about 6-8 years old.
    The younger one asks the older one Why do the neighbors celebrate Christmas and what is Christmas? The older replies it’s some Jewish guys birthday. the younger one asks why don’t we celebrate it then? The older one says because he became a Catholic. Don’t you know anything.

  10. I loved this story–could really identify with both sides of it (yours and your son’s). My parents’ solution to the problem was to have Christmas–a tree, stockings, etc. Rather than having Christmas and calling it Chanukah, we just had Chanukah the way they thought it should be (gelt, dreidels, latkes, g’nug). However, one year (I must have been about 7 or 8) we agreed we’d stop doing Christmas, and all was well until my mother read me, on Christmas Eve (what was she thinking???!??) the A.A. Milne poem about King John (“Please, Father Christmas, if you love me at all..”) and I became despondent contemplating the lack of any festivities awaiting us in the morning.

    My mother went out and acquired stockings…if I remember correctly, the pre-filled type one gets in the drug store. She is a very nice lady, my mother.

    I honestly don’t remember what we did about Santa…my in-laws celebrate Christmas, so for the first 3 years of parenthood, the party line was that we helped Nana celebrate Christmas. Tree, stockings, the whole 9 yards. But my father-in-law died the day my younger daughter was born, and we only did one more big family Christmas after that. I don’t think either of my daughters remembers it. After that, Christmas morning consisted of opening gifts that were mailed from aunts and Nana, and stockings filled by Nana and mailed to us. I truly don’t recall what the girls thought about or wished for regarding Santa. I would probably be a little more permissive about having a little Frosty-the-Snowman/Santa/Rudolph-style stuff in my home, but my husband (a convert to Judaism) is a grinch and wants none of it.

    On the other hand, we go all out with the sukkah decorations!

  11. Juhu endlich habe bei dir hier in dem Artikel genau das gefunden was ich gesucht habe. Ich dachte schon das ich im Netz nix mehr finde und bin fast verzweifelt. Aber jetzt bin ich erst mal froh vielen dank noch einmal.

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