Growing up Jewish during the early 1970s as my religious family was imploding, meant that culturally controversial questions went unanswered. What’s understood now in America as “The Holiday Season” was then known purely as Christmas. After Thanksgiving, everywhere I went – department stores, restaurants, banks, supermarket checkout lines – friendly grown-ups would smile and wish me “Merry Christmas.” They echoed the priorities of Frosty, Snoopy, The Grinch, and other animated television characters by asking:
“What is Santa giving you this year?”
“Have you been ‘bad’ or ‘good?'”
“Will you be sitting on Santa’s lap?”
Having been raised to be an honest and polite child, I found myself deeply confused. To reply: “I don’t celebrate Christmas” seemed rude. To say “I don’t know” about receiving presents was a parsing better left to lawyers. As for concerns about being “Bad” or “Good”- reflecting upon my annual moral conduct was a matter for Yom Kippur.
But what really perplexed me (Aside from why I should sit on a stranger’s red-coated lap and tell him my wishes for a Barbie Country Camper, as well as the ontology of this odd social practice?) was the adult – Jewish and non-Jewish – conspiracy of silence. If Santa Claus was real, then what did that mean for Judaism? If Santa Claus was not real, then what did this mean about the Real World?
Fast forward twenty-five years…
During our early days of parenting, my husband and I lived in a ground floor apartment in Brooklyn. Our wonderful upstairs neighbors had a daughter the same age as our son and the kids were best friends. As new mothers, we became close friends while engaging in the great human socialization experiment involving playdoh, gluesticks, glitter, purple dinosaurs, and microwaved chicken nuggets. One December afternoon, my friend phoned, asking for a favor. Turns out, it is her tradition, even though they are Jewish, to decorate a tree and give presents on Christmas morning. Would I mind not letting on to their daughter, or having my son reveal, that Santa Claus isn’t real? What to do? Of course I refuse to ruin Christmas for ANYONE under ANY circumstances, and promptly agree to protect childhood innocence at all costs. Only after replacing the phone in its cradle did I ask myself: What about my parental rights? What about my responsibility to the truth? What, in fact, is the truth? Consider that venerable 1897 editorial by an editor of The (New York) Sun, replying to eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon that “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus.”
First came damage and spin control. With patient and empathetic communication, an immediate solution unfolds. My son miraculously grokked the situation and promised not to tell his best friend where her presents would come from. His willingness to protect the secret moves me deeply. Perhaps this is all more complicated…Perhaps there is more than one answer? As evening falls, we watch the last autumn leaves whirl about a darkening courtyard, and the matter grow clearer. There are FOUR ANSWERS to the question of whether or not Santa Claus is real.
YES. Santa Claus is real because people I love believe in him.
NO. Santa Claus is not real. Parents buy the presents.
MAYBE. Santa Claus might be real because, in the spirit of Christmas, people open their hearts and act with greater kindness and generosity.
But it is the last answer: “IT’S UP TO YOU” that counts most.
My son piped up: “Mom, how did you make up your mind about Santa Claus?”
He gazed sweetly into my eyes and I became a post-Moon Landing child again, remembering how my scientific experiment began. My focus was on the logistics of a rooftop sleigh landing. All chimneys looked alike, I reasoned, especially covered in snow. How could Santa Claus tell the difference between a Jewish and a Gentile chimney? All one had to do was hang a sock over the fireplace, put out a plate of cookies paired with a glass of milk, and return on Christmas morning to gather results. If there were crumbs, a drained glass, and an item inside the sock, then Santa Claus was real. If not, then he wasn’t.
The night before Christmas, I announced to my parents that I was conducting a scientific experiment. They raised their eyebrows but didn’t stop me from hanging a striped sock along the wooden mantle above our stone fireplace. The next morning, there were cookies on the plate, a full glass, and an empty sock.
My son asked: “What about your mezuzah? Wouldn’t Santa Claus have seen that?”
“I never thought that Santa Claus would examine the family doorpost!”
So, what did I discover at age seven and again at thirty-three? In every generation, we are asked to decide for ourselves and with our children, whether or not Santa Claus is real. So Virginia, Veronica, Valerie, and Vered, please ask burning questions and build theory. Conduct independent scientific and moral experiments. Consider the possibility that all four answers – “Yes”, “No”, “Maybe”, and “It’s Up To You”, are simultaneously true.