My 3-year-old nephew, his voice raspy from a recent cold, has been directing a long-winded narrative my way. I catch only a few words, but they startle me: Santa will be sliding down chimneys, and then there will be presents.
“Oh really?” I say, my eyebrows rising, inwardly vowing to speak with my sister.
Although my sister and I did not grow up in a strictly observant Jewish home, Christmas remained a world apart. When the revelers caroled in our Queens neighborhood, I listened from a safe distance, peering behind porch curtains. When holiday lights twinkled through the windows next door, I stared, enraptured, envious. If I reaped some small compensation from my Jewish identity at Christmas time, it was the satisfaction of sharing in the adult secret. Santa Claus was a fake.
A.J. Jacobs, my neighbor and author of “The Year of Living Biblically,” suggests another possible tactic for Jewish parents. When his young sons popped the Santa question, Jacobs says, “I tried to turn it into a science lesson. Could Santa really visit 1 billion homes in a single night — or would he burn up in the atmosphere because he exceeded Mach 5? I don’t know if that was the right approach, but I thought maybe it’d reinforce the Jewish value of questioning.”
Some Jewish parents, of course, choose not to reveal the charade, but their conversation usually does include this point: Santa doesn’t squeeze himself into Jewish chimneys. My nephew, though, hasn’t yet received any friendly hints, and when I call my sister, she is apologetic and somewhat anxious. “I’m at a turning point in my life,” explains Nina, who is married to a Christian man, but raising her son Jonas, and his little sister Anika, as Jews. Nina tells me that she has no plans to celebrate Christmas in any manner. But this year she’s sad about that, because Jonas is more aware of what he’s missing.
I’m relieved to learn that Santa will not be sliding down Nina’s chimney, but the conversation makes me wonder about those Jewish families who do include Noel in their December rituals. In the past, I’ve been discomfited to discover, for example, that Santa, aka my sister-in-law, leaves gifts for her sons on Dec. 25. Could I be overreacting? I check in with nine or so parents, all proud Jews, some intermarried, many assimilated. Though I will never decorate an evergreen in my living room, I start to realize that roots form over time, and that Jewish ones won’t be extirpated overnight.
For Maxine Wolf, for example, Santa’s visit marked an anomaly in an otherwise intensely Jewish childhood. She grew up in a small blue-collar town in Pennsylvania where her family attended Shabbat services every Friday night at the Conservative synagogue, and where she and her siblings served as the token Jews in the local public schools. “We were already the kids with the horns,” says Wolf. “My parents decided that we should have Santa Claus because if we didn’t that would really set us apart.”
Wolf continues that tradition with her daughter, who is 12. Maylee, who is studying for her bat mitzvah, still believes that Saint Nick flies by their New Jersey home on Christmas Eve, his reindeer littering the fireplace with carrot bits (which Wolf strategically plants the night before, along with some gifts). “Would the rabbis like it? Probably not,” says Wolf. “But I’m not depriving her of something that’s fun, and she’s still very Jewish.”
My friend, Steve Fuchs, whose partner Brian Lancaster is in the process of converting to Judaism, has already shared the truth about Santa with their children. Still, the family will continue a ritual started years before, stringing up decorations that Fuchs and Lancaster purchased and made for each other. The ornaments grace the branches of a “holiday tree” — not a Christmas tree. Fuchs tells the children, ages 3 and 6, that, “We honor daddy’s tradition, but Jewish families don’t celebrate Christmas.”
I feel lucky that my children, raised by two Jewish parents, and acquainted with so many Jewish families from their earliest sandbox days, don’t yearn for the trappings or treasures of Yuletide. My daughter Talia, who is 8, and disdainful of the tooth fairy, rolls her eyes when I ask whether any Christian third graders still believe in Santa Claus. My son Joel, who is 6, grins at the mention of Santa, and spins a yarn about some of the less famous dwellers of the North Pole: Birthday Bob and Chanukah Harry.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org