My daughter started asking the inevitable Santa Claus plausibility questions last year. She had just turned 4, and on Christmas Eve she rattled off a litany of queries: How does he get to all the houses in one night? How will he get inside if our door is locked? Doesn’t he feel sick from all those cookies? She only asked me these questions, not her father, even though I’m Jewish and he’s our resident Christian. Perhaps because she knew I was more likely to tell it to her straight — children can smell your uncertainty, and she sensed I wasn’t fully committed to this Santa business. In response to her skepticism, all I could muster was: “He’s magic!”
A sorry excuse for an answer, I know. But it’s one that I come by honestly.
It’s not my fault I didn’t have a more elaborate response. My brother and I weren’t brought up with much religion — my parents are Jewish atheists. My mother is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and on the relatively rare occasions she did encourage anything religious, it was because she felt it was important for me and my brother to know about being Jewish, and that what was different about us from our peers was something to be appreciated. As a result, Christmas was certainly not celebrated in our house: no trees, no flickering lights festooned on our roof, no “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and for sure no Santa Claus. My parents went out of their way to treat Dec. 25 as if it were a regular old day, when everything just happened to be closed.
At some point — I’m sure in response to my whining about lack of Christmas accoutrements growing up in a mostly Christian town — my grandfather tried to help out by claiming that there were Hanukkah elves who performed Santa-like duties for little Jewish children. I remember not buying it for a single second.
Now the tables have turned. My daughter is 5, and she’s pretty much a kindergarten Woodward and Bernstein: When one of her friends claimed that she and her 3-year-old sister both lost teeth and had a visit from the tooth fairy, my daughter marched home, recounted the story, then insisted that I text that girl’s mother to ask if the tooth fairy really visited, because she didn’t believe her friend’s tall tale. The mother texted back, “My kid is so full of it,” and my daughter was smug.
She was placated (or, at least, so I thought) by my Santa-is-magic response for nine months or so. Then, one night, we were watching an episode of this bizarre French cartoon she likes, “Zig & Sharko,” that had a Santa-based subplot, and she turned to me and asked, more earnestly than she previously had, “Mom, is Santa really real?”
I panicked, shooting back a standard, “What do you think?” To which she replied, “I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you — I want to know for real.” I couldn’t punt to my husband, who wasn’t yet home from work, so I said, “No, honey, he’s not really real.” Seeing her ever-so-slightly disappointed expression, I asked, “Are you okay?” “Yeah,” she said, then went back to watching the cartoon hyena try to stab the shark.
Later, when I told my husband that I had told our oldest the truth, he was annoyed: He loved believing in Santa, and did so for longer than most kids. “You should have said, ‘The magic of Santa is real.’ ” Or something. I was annoyed right back: “I’m Jewish,” I said. “I don’t have a script for this!”
It blew over quickly, of course. But this minor kerfuffle strikes at the heart of our fumbling interfaith marriage. Like me, my husband didn’t have a particularly religious upbringing. He occasionally attended Episcopal services as a kid but never with any reverence or deep belief. As a result, we unintentionally put matters of faith off until we had children. Then, once we had a child, every year we kept saying, “We really should figure this out,” and then we’d say, “Nah, she’s too young to know what’s going on; we’ll figure it out next year.”
We successfully kicked the can down the road without even minor strife, going to Passover Seders, putting up a Christmas tree, remembering to light Hanukkah candles five out of eight nights, until The Santa Incident. As my daughter gets older — and as she was joined by her younger sister last year — it pains me in some existential way to be raising the girls without religion. But it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. I don’t have a faith tradition that I feel strongly enough about to impart in a going-to-temple-every-week kind of way.
At the same time, I can’t just leave it at “whatever…” My bright, curious child deserves better than that. When she got days off from school for the High Holy Days this year, she asked why I had never told her about Rosh Hashanah before. She seemed a bit hurt that I hadn’t informed her about something important enough to miss kindergarten for, so I sincerely apologized and told her we’d have a special dinner next year.
It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s something. The only certainty is that we’ll keep grappling with this as our children grow.
Ultimately for Christmas 2017, I told my husband that “I’m happy to put up a tree, and I’m okay with telling her about Santa in the first place. But perpetuating the Santa myth is a bridge too far for this Jew.” He understood.
If you’re worried about the state of my daughter’s 5-year-old sense of wonderment now that she knows the deal about Santa, don’t. It’s still intact. Not long after she found out about Mr. Claus, she asked me if unicorns were real. Since we’d already established that mom was the straight-talk express, I was more comfortable being honest again. “No, they’re not real,” I said. And she said, “Well, everyone on the playground says they’re real, so you probably just don’t know for sure. I think they’re real.” Now she wants more My Little Ponies. For Christmas. Or Hanukkah. Presents, it seems, are universal.