My husband is Jewish. My son is Jewish. I’m Jewish, too—but I didn’t start out that way. I came to Judaism in my teens, whereas my son was born Jewish, just like his dad. He goes to a Hebrew preschool, just like his dad did, too, many (many) years ago.
And yet, all three of us have grown up with a belief in Santa Claus and I’m not about to take that away from my son anytime soon just because we don’t put up a Christmas tree every year.
I have a complicated relationship with Christmas, for obvious reasons. Growing up, we weren’t terribly religious and for me, the Christmas holiday was solidly about presents from Santa, decorating our Christmas tree, presents from family, candy canes, more presents, sneaking chocolates out of my dad’s stocking and did I mention presents? Santa was very much a prominent—if unseen beyond the confines of my local mall—figure in my household every December of my childhood.
It almost didn’t end up that way. When I was 4, I got into an argument over dolls with my older cousin. Completely peeved she wasn’t getting her way, she suddenly blurted out, “Santa’s not real! And neither is the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny!” before storming out of the room, throwing the dolls on the floor.
I ran to my mom, sobbing, telling her what happened. She assured me that yes, Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny were indeed real—but I couldn’t help but harbor a lingering doubt. That was the first Christmas the letters to Santa started.
In addition to leaving out milk and cookies for Santa, I wanted to leave a note, too. I have no idea what that first note said, but my faith in the magic of Santa was restored when, on Christmas morning, I saw that the milk and cookies had been drunk and eaten—and Santa had left me a little thank you note in return!
(I ended up doing the same thing for the Tooth Fairy, eventually writing ridiculously long and complicated letters where my sister, eight years my senior, was tasked with maintaining the unique mythology of the Suwa Family Tooth Fairy canon as I lost all my baby teeth. I never wrote letters to the Easter Bunny, because bunny paws can’t hold a pen to write letters back, obvs.)
My husband told me how, even when he was a little kid, he was raised to believe in Santa, too.
Even though he grew up in a predominantly Jewish community in New Jersey, Santa reigns supreme during the winter holiday season. Old Saint Nick’s jolly face and litany of Christmas carols can’t be avoided every time you walk into a store during December, not to mention the fact that Santa was all the talk of the non-Jewish kids at his school growing up. But how on Earth do you get a Jewish kid to buy into the Santa mythology? My in-laws came up with a pretty genius solution.
You see, Santa stops at Jewish kids’ homes as rest stops on his long overnight journey of delivering presents to the children who celebrate Christmas—which of course means that Jewish kids should leave out carrots and water for Santa’s reindeer.
To help my husband buy in to the magic, my in-laws would make sure the carrots were partially eaten, the water gone, and the recliner in their den stretched out with a blanket left tossed aside as though Santa put his feet up for a few before heading back out into the Christmas present delivery grind. Because when you don’t grow up celebrating Christmas, December 25th is just another regular day on the calendar.
When our son was born, it was important to us to keep that Christmas tradition alive for him, even though our winter holiday happens to be Hanukkah. Last year, we left out carrots, cookies (because hey—extra excuse to eat some cookies) and a cup of water on our kitchen counter. On Christmas morning, my son walked down the stairs and into the kitchen to find carrot and cookie crumbs, along with an empty cup. I also took the extra step of making a tiny scroll addressed to our son—his very own thank you note from Santa, just like I had growing up.
It really doesn’t matter what holiday we celebrate in December. (And if I’m being honest, Hanukkah is technically a really minor holiday in the Jewish calendar.) But there’s something magical about this time of year especially for young children, no matter how manufactured it might be by adults. Allowing your child to not only develop but hold onto their sense of wonder is a precious task for parents, a responsibility I and my husband take on with great care.
So while we don’t have an Elf on our shelf—or a Mensch on our bench— we’re going to let our son believe in Santa just as long as he pleases, if only because pure unadulterated (in the most literal since of the word) joy, wonder and belief in the magic and might of childhood is a gift that lasts well beyond the holiday season.
Where are my fellow Members of the Tribe? Do you talk about Christmas or Santa with your Jewish kids, or do you just skip the subject entirely? Share your stories in the comments!
Editor, Spoke Contributor Network