I Laughed When I Saw Him, in Spite of Myself
It’s isn’t easy, because of course he’s everywhere I look. Even if I wasn’t attempting to raise Jewish kids in an interfaith home in Atlanta (the consumer buckle of the Bible Belt and the brand-loyal home of Coca-Cola), I think I’d be tired of his jolly fat face. But this year is harder than ever before. My son just turned five, and suddenly he really believes in the red suit. Because they “wrote letters to Santa” (though my son can’t write yet) in “school.”
I can’t just say that we don’t celebrate Christmas. We have a tree (the only Christian symbol that enters our home all year, because it matters to my husband, and I have lots of fond memories too, as an interfaith kid myself). Plus his grandparents have been sending presents. Though we hadn’t been planning to do much for him ourselves. Hanukkah came early this year.
So this is how it goes down, on the way to school today in the car:
“Mommy?” Mose says, “I think I want Santa to bring me a Transformer instead of Playmobil.” He tells me this soberly. He ponders the gravity of his decision and nods, “Yes, I do. I want a Bumblebee Transformer.”
How do I explain that he’ll be sorely disappointed if he gets his hopes up? Is this the moment I explain that we don’t believe in Santa, that Santa is something other (nicer) parents do for their kids? Or do I let him be angry at Santa on December 25th, instead of pissed at me?
Finally I sigh and say, “Mose, maybe you shouldn’t think so much about Santa Claus. Maybe you should be grateful for all the nice things you already have. In fact, maybe instead of talking about the toys you want, you should open your piggybank and go shopping and buy some presents for kids who aren’t as lucky as you.” (They have a Toys for Tots drop-off at his school, so this topic has already come up.)
He considers the idea. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “We don’t have to. The poor kids can ask Santa too.”
Okay. So now what? Do I explain that Santa doesn’t visit poor kids? That their parents don’t know Santa’s number or address in the North Pole? That Santa gets his naughty/nice list from the credit-card records at Whole Foods? Or do I give up and buy him the stupid Transformer?
What I want to say, desperately, is that even though we have a tree, he is Jewish, and Christmas is a Christian holiday, so what we’ll do instead is to be Santa for other kids. Because that’s a Jewish thing to do, to help other people. But is it? A Christian holiday? Is SantaChristian? I’m hard-pressed to figure out how Santa and Jesus have anything to do with one another.
So I write to my husband, at work. I say, “I think it’s time to explain about Santa.” My husband agrees we can do that, but points out we should probably wait until after school is out for Winter Break so Mose doesn’t ruin the magic of the holiday for the other kids in his class.
And that’s exactly right. Mose will spill the beans. (He is, after all, the son of a woman who feels the need to share every thought/feeling/idea she has on the internet.) So that makes sense. We’ll wait a week, and let him keep on changing his mind about Transformers and Playmobil, obsessing about which hunk of plastic will make his soul complete.
But now I have a week to think, and so I’m sitting here, in the glow of my undeniably lovely Christmas tree, in the state of confusion I’ve brought largely upon myself: loving the tree but hating Santa, wondering why I do, and thinking about all the lies we tell our children. I’m pondering the consumer insanity that is December, and cursing the distance between all of this… and faith.
My parents split up when I was about eight, which would have made my sister about two that year. We moved when I was 12, and Emma was six. At some point in that four-year window, in that first house, I did something really nice for my sister. It may have been the single most generous thing I’ve ever done.
She was sad, though I didn’t remember why. So, to cheer her up, I invented the “Magic Fiddler.” I gave her an old handkerchief with a picture of a fiddling leprechaun on it, and I told her to put it under her pillow. I explained that if she did so, there would be a present waiting for her in the morning. Then, after she went to bed, I stuffed an old blue knee-sock (a sock!) with Brach orange-slice candies (I remember how they left sugar all over the sock) and left it for her to find when she woke up.
I don’t know what compelled me to do this. I was usually a pretty self-absorbed kid. And I don’t know why I remember it now, when so many other unphotographed events have slipped through the sieve that is my memory. But I know that I did this thing, unprompted, for my sister, who was younger at the time than my son is now. I guess it was just because I loved her, and because she was sad, and little, and those were complicated years.
I don’t know.
But now, thinking about Santa, and lying to kids, and presents, I am suddenly deeply aware that the gift was not the sock or the orange slices. The gift was the lie. The gift was that I was willing to make up a bullshit story I knew was untrue, and tell her that it was true, in a convincing way. Because she was sad, and sometimes lies make us feel better when we can believe them. They distract us, but also, they convince us of potential, of change. They make us think that by believing in something that seems impossible, we can alter our state.
I was eight or twelve or somewhere in the middle. I seriously doubt I was thinking, “Maybe if I give her orange slices she’ll think that Daddy might come home and things will go back to the way they were.” But in retrospect, I think that was part of what I was doing.
And that by lying to my sister about a silly Magic Fiddler, by bribing her with candy, I was convincing myself of something too. I watched her believe the lie and I felt better myself. Both because I got to feel generous, and parental, but also because I got to remember, for a moment, what it felt like to believe in something, to trust in something.
Those being the very years I stopped trusting.
And this makes me think that maybe, as we lie to our kids about Santa, and we buy them crap toys that we don’t really want them to have, what we are really saying to ourselves is, “It can all still be better than it is.” Is it possible that we watch them tear into those piles of credit-card debt, and we see belief? That telling the lie, weaving the story, is the best way we know of remembering that somewhere, off in the universe, someone might still be making a present for us too?
Or maybe not. Maybe I’m searching too hard for meaning, making up a story myself right now, so that I can forgive Santa and decide not to face the conversation with Mose. So that I don’t have to accept that the man in the red Coca-Cola suit is exactly as commercial and empty as I felt him to be this morning. So that I don’t have to give up my pretty tree.
But I don’t think so. Because reading this back to myself now, it rings true.
And maybe next year, Mose will be old enough that I can teach him to lie too.
Laurel Snyder is a contributing editor to KtB, the editor of Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, and the author of a poetry collection, The Myth of the Simple Machines. She’s also written several books for children, including the forthcoming title, Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher. She lives online at LaurelSnyder.com.