As a small boy, I found the time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas fairly stressful. It was quite a burden to be a Jewish child in the middle of my very Waspy hometown. It wasn’t that I was jealous of the encroaching promise of Christmas’ booty of plastic toys from some Far East country (first Japan, later South Korea, now China). In fact, by the late 20th century, Jews in America had figured out how to turn the relatively minor holiday of Hanukkah into something that all the Christian kids were envious of:
Second grade teacher: “Kevin, please tell the class about Hanukkah.”
Kevin (aka young token Israelite): “Well, Hanukkah is just like Christmas… only it’s for eight days.”
Kids in class: “Eight days? You get Christmas for eight days? No fair!”
Okay, I exaggerated. And why not? No point in saying that the 8 Days of Hanukkah were sort of like the 12 Days of Christmas. Do any Christians really get excited about six geese a-laying? (I know of no one that needs that many eggs.) Likewise, in my parents’ house, it was traditional that, gift-wise, Hanukkah nights 3, 5, and 6 sucked – or socked to be more accurate. That was when we’d receive socks (or sweaters or rubber boots or whatever else we were going to get anyway but in the guise of a gift).
No need to tell my friends that, however. Or point out that whereas their sucky presents could be ignored in real-time because they were also unwrapping the good stuff, I had to wait another night – or two in the case of night 5! – to get to something that could more meaningfully be called a gift. Or worse still: I had to pretend-smile and be “happy” with socks – socks! – rather than just move on to the good stuff. Eventually, however, I figured out that through judicious timing, the opening of a gift from the grandparents on nights 3, 5, or 6 could make everything alright and get me over the hump of sock-night. You knew that your grandparents loved you too much to do something awful – like send clothes – especially when they only sent one present. So, in the end, even three lousy nights of “presents” weren’t the reason for my seasonal stress.
The real burden was this: I knew the truth about Santa Claus.
Now, I can’t claim any special hard-nosed, cynical skepticism on the mystical topics of childhood. After all, there was no one who’d jam his hand under a pillow faster the morning after to find out how many bucks replaced the tooth left there the night before. And, to this very day, I believe in anthropomorphic climate change, the Apollo moon landings, and the fossil record.
Oh, alright: and heliocentrism.
But Santa Claus? No way.
It was my mother who briefed me on the whole situation during the first Christmas season that I could talk. And why not? The last thing she needed for me to think was that the kindly, jolly, fat man in the red suit was an anti-Semite when it came to Jewish boys and girls:
“When are we going to get our Christmas tree?”
“We don’t have a Christmas tree, Kevin. Jews don’t have Christmas trees, they’re for Christians.”
“So where will Santa leave my presents?”
The question precipitated a lecture from my mother on the whole liturgy of Santa Claus. She meticulously deconstructed the mythos bit by bit. The flying reindeer. The fitting into the chimney. The heating bill at the North Pole. The elf unions. The lack of Coriolis effects when visiting that many homes while the Earth rotated beneath you.
My head exploded: You mean I wasn’t going to get toys from Santa?
My mother ignored my emphasis on Far East plastics and continued the lecture. At the end of it, I felt more aware than I would ever feel again (so I thought). After all, here was a whole societal conspiracy to purposely warp reality to a targeted demographic. And it was explained to me by the most trusted source in the world: my mother.
Never mind it was trusted Christian mothers that actively promulgated the Santa Conspiracy.
The next day, I accompanied my mother to the market. And as she pushed the cart (and me) along the aisles of weekly specials and kitschy Christmas decor, we saw a mother scolding her toddler daughter for pulling items off the shelf and plonking them into their cart: “If you don’t behave, Santa Claus won’t bring you anything nice this year.”
“Santa Claus isn’t real.”
It turns out, when the content is just right, a tiny child’s voice can drown out even the “spill in aisle 7” chatter on the store’s speakers.
The mother turned to me. The toddler, too. I repeated: “Santa Claus isn’t real.”
I might have said it a third time, but I felt jerked in the cart as my mother accelerated down the aisle, nearly wiping out a display of gingerbread men as we took the corner hard.
So I was subjected to another lecture. This one on the topic of “you don’t have to share what you know about Santa with Christian children.” At the end of it, I felt more aware than I would ever feel again (so I thought). After all, here was a whole societal conspiracy to purposely withhold known facts from a targeted demographic. And it was explained to me by the most trusted source in the world: my mother.
Never mind it was trusted Jewish mothers that passively promulgated the Santa Conspiracy.
The following week, we were 7 days closer to Christmas and my mother was back in the grocery store and I was back in the shopping cart. I observed several “Santa won’t bring you anything” scenes throughout the store but after my mother saw me stay silent during the first one, she relaxed and the mission to the market proceeded smoothly without incident.
The bag boy was putting the last of the filled grocery bags in our cart. While my mother was getting her change and I was stuck sitting in the cart, I looked around the store, fidgeting. And there, at the automatic sliding doors, at the place where my mother would wheel the cart and the groceries and me to exit – there! – was Santa Claus.
Well, not Santa Claus, because Santa Claus isn’t real. But a store employee dressed up as a convincing facsimile of the Santa Claus that society was using in some sort of Far East plastic toy conspiracy that I didn’t fully understand just yet.
“Santa” was handing out candy canes. And because this story takes place in the 20th century, these were real candy canes – full-sized. Not the chintzy little things you see today that are only twice the size of a peppermint hard candy. (You can tell the story takes place in the 20th century because the grocery store was still trying to provide a pleasant shopping experience even after it had just taken your money.)
My mother wheeled the cart and the groceries and me towards the automatic sliding doors – and “Santa”. He was ho-ho-ho-ing (just like the legend demands) and offering the giant candy canes (made even bigger by my small hands) to the children as they exited.
And then it was my turn.
“Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas! How are you, young man? Have you been a good boy? Here’s a candy cane for you. I brought it special from the North Pole! Ho ho ho!”
The jolly man thrust the treat in front of me. I hesitated. I knew I wasn’t the target demographic. Getting free candy under false pretenses didn’t seem kosher. Especially when it was Christmas candy.
In a very small voice: “I shouldn’t take that.”
“Santa” was game: he looked at my mother and sized up the situation (so he thought). “Ho ho ho! What a good boy to listen to your mother.” He leaned down to my eyeline and offered the confection to me again: “It’s okay to take the candy. I’m not a stranger. I’m Santa Claus.”
“No you’re not!”
The guy was good; he was unflappable. Not conceding anything, he stood straight again and, hands on hips, spread his lips into a huge, confident smile that was unmistakable even under his real(!) white whiskers. In a booming voice: “Ho ho ho! Who says I’m not Santa?”
“My mother!” I responded equally loud.
This stunned the previously unflappable “Santa” who clearly wasn’t ready for such a fundamental breach of the social contract.
“She told me that Santa Claus is just a made-up story Christian parents tell their children!”
“Santa” shot a look at my mother but before he (or any of the other shocked mothers around) could say anything, I felt jerked as the cart accelerated so rapidly that the automatic sliding doors almost didn’t open fast enough to let us out of the store.
I never got the oversized candy cane. But I did get yet another lecture. This time the topic was how maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t such a good idea to tell the world how your mother – the most trusted source! – was blaming the Christians for this whole societal conspiracy called “Santa Claus”.
Now I was part of the Santa Conspiracy, too. Mom was already in deep. And she had turned me into an accessory after the fact. I felt more aware than I would ever feel again. Or ever wanted to feel. Ever.
You want to talk stress during the holidays?
So the damned Santa Conspiracy thing gave me a headache every Christmas season. It’s a heavy burden on a toddler to have his first interaction with the whole of society require him to be a good fibber – and sustain that skill for years until the rest of his peer group, finally, catches up to the reality of the origins of Far East plastic toys. Oh sure, the situation did prepare me for the delicate questions you get later in life. Questions like: “does this dress make me look fat?” or “how was my cooking?” or “did you like the sweater my sister got for you?”
But at what cost to my childhood? For while my friends in that Waspy little town would sleep and innocently dream of a white Christmas, I would lay awake and guiltily scheme on a white lie. And if I had been a Christian kid, that would have gotten me socks in my stocking. Socks!
Originally published December 11, 2012 in Bitter Lemons.