Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Retrieved from the Scaramouche Vaults

I wrote this one--"Santa and Me"--back in 2004 and thought I'd dust it off for this holiday season:

I have a confession: I haven't always been nice to Santa Claus. You might say we got off on the wrong foot early on. When I was five-years-old, I told my best friend, Betty Schmidt (name changed to protect the guilty--me), that there was no Santa; that he was, in fact, merely a strange man with a bizarre fashion sense wearing faux whiskers and rubber padding. This came as news to Betty, who was not a wised-up Jewish child like me, and, until I shattered her sweet illusions, was convinced that Santa was the real deal. She ran screaming down the road to her mother, who, seconds later, rapped angrily on our front door.

"DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR DAUGHTER HAS DONE?" she shrieked at my startled mother.

"No," replied my mother, clearly innocent of my misdeed, "what's she done?"


My mother apologized as profusely as she could and assured Mrs. Schmidt that appropriate steps would be taken. And they were. Soon after, we moved to a Jewish neighbourhood where news of Santa's fraudulence would come as no surprise and not spark this kind of overheated response.

First, however, she asked me if I had done the reprehensible deed. "Yes," I confessed. "I didn't mean to make her cry. I thought she knew."

And, indeed, I did. I thought everyone knew that Santa was made up. Oh, they might pretend to believe that a barrel-shaped guy hurled himself down millions of chimneys on a a single night, but they must have known that it was really their parents who left the Tonka trucks and Easy-bake ovens under the tree. Anyone with half a brain would know that.

Wrong. Let's just say that the combination of being Jewish and preternaturally sceptical had innured me to Santa's impact on other children. I learned my lesson, though. Never again would I defame Santa to a true believer.

Skip ahead many years later to when my husband and I are meeting the birth families of our soon-to-be-born son for the first time. There we sit around a dining room table in a town in the southern U.S. with the birth mother, her parents and the parents of the birth father. Only one of them, the birth mother's mother, has ever met anyone Jewish before, but none of them seem to have any problem with our religion. After some pleasant if guarded conversation, the birth mother turns to me and asks quietly, "will Santa still come to visit?"

Gulp. Think fast, think fast. The wrong answer and she might decide to give her baby to another couple who are more Claus-accommodating. And whatever you do, don't mention Betty Schmidt.

"Well," I said, "we have lots of non-Jewish friends who celebrate Christmas, and they always invite us over during the holidays. And also," I added, a light, thankfully, going off in my head, "the city we live in has the largest annual Santa Claus parade in the world, and I used to take my (then) kid sister to it all the time."

That response, which to me tap danced around the question without answering it directly, seemed to satisfy her, and the question never arose again. And every year at this time, my son, now six, receives a package from his birth mother and her parents for Christmas. So I guess in a way Santa does come to visit.

Still, the concept of Santa confuses him a bit. On occasion, like many Jewish kids, he's found Santa to be a profoundly attractive figure: a cuddly, avuncular dude who brings you stuff--hey, what's not to love about that?--and he wonders why there's no Jewish equivalent. But usually, he's satisfied with his Chanukah haul (Lego, Lego and more Lego), and likes the idea that the Jewish holiday last eight whole days, and thus affords lots more opportunity for gift-getting than Christmas; dreidels and fried potato pancakes also hold a definite appeal. At the same time, he knows that Jews and Santa aren't a natural fit. Recently, we were invited to a Christmas party by a company that does work for my husband where a Santa was in attendance. During dinner, Santa made the rounds, shaking hands, ho-ho-ho-ing, and having his picture taken with kids who so requested, one of whom was my son. Later on, Santa distributed gifts to all the children. My son's was a real set of miniature tools and a leather tool belt.

Afterwards, I wondered what my son thought about his first up-close-and-personal encounter with the man in red. I didn't want to make a big deal about it, though, so I kept mum. On the way home he broached the subject on his own.

"Mummy," he said, "you know why Santa gave me a present?"

"No, sweetie, why did Santa give you a present?"

"Because he didn't know I was Jewish."

Actually, I thought, he knows you're Jewish, but he doesn't mind.

It's been a long and winding road, but I've finally come to terms with the big guy. So thanks, Santa. I know we've had our grief in the past, but you'll never know how glad I am that you come to my house every year to bring a present from America to a little Jewish boy.

And sorry, Betty, for ruining Christmas when we were five. I sincerely hope you managed to find some joy in it again.

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