I never thought to tell this story on the blog, mostly because it didn’t seem like anything special, but when I told a blogger about it, her response was surprising, so maybe my experience was more unique than I thought.
When I was a child, I believed in Santa Claus.
Remember, I am Jewish. Of course, there are many Jewish parents who tell their children about Santa Claus so the children don’t feel “different.” There are others who avoid mentioning Santa completely, worried that their kids will lose their Jewish identity to the mainstream culture.
My father loved Santa Claus. It was sort of an odd obsession. He dressed like Santa for the children in the hospital where he worked. He shouted with excitement when Santa appeared at the end of the Thanksgiving Day Parade. If my father was alive today, one of the question I would love to ask him is, “What the hell was it with YOU and SANTA?”
Our family did not celebrate Christmas. We never had a Christmas Tree. We never made eggnog. I never felt like I was missing out. We always celebrated Hanukkah. But for some reason, my father loved Santa Claus, and told me that Santa really existed.
Now here is where it gets interesting, because my father was an eccentric guy. He told me that there WAS a Santa Claus, but that he didn’t come to OUR HOME because we were Jewish. He skipped over us like the angel of death on Passover.
“It isn’t our holiday, so Santa doesn’t come to us,” he said.
In retrospect, this might seem like child cruelty. Why even say there IS a Santa, if he isn’t coming to visit you? But it never bothered me or made me upset. It made logical sense. It wasn’t my holiday, so this bearded guy and his reindeer didn’t bother schlepping to me! My father was able to create a whole different meaning for Santa Claus, making him seem mystical, but from afar, like a visiting baseball team’s cool mascot.
So, I believed in Santa, even if he didn’t show up at my home.
“What about Anthony?” I wondered, referring to the Italian Catholic kid down the hall. “How does Santa get to him since our building doesn’t have any chimneys?”
“Santa comes through the terrace door.”
It seemed sort of odd, but I figured that Santa had to deal with a lot of modern urban obstacles, like telephone wires and satellites.
Every year, my father would drag me downtown to Macy’s 34th Street to visit the “real” Santa Claus. We would wait in this Disneyland-sized line. Wide-eyed children from throughout the city were eager to meet their hero. I was more excited about going to Nathan’s for hot dogs afterwards, but I saw my father’s happiness over ME meeting Santa, so I played along.
“There he is! Can you see him?” he said, pointing to Santa sitting on his throne. My father’s voice had the same enthusiasm of someone feasting their eyes on the Pope at the Vatican. “It’s Santa Claus.”
After an hour, it was my time to go face-to-face with jolly St. Nick. I would sit on his lap, which always made me feel uncomfortable. Why did I have to sit on his lap just to talk with him? When Kissinger went on diplomatic “talks” he never sat on the Chinese Premier’s lap. But I was respectful to Santa and did what he asked, because — after all — this was Santa Claus. And I knew our meeting was a special moment, and needed to be recorded for posterity, which explained the elf with the KISS shirt taking our photo with a bright flash.
“And what would you like for Christmas, young man?” he asked me.
“Well, nothing really. I’m Jewish.”
“Ho Ho Ho, Jewish boys and girls also get presents from Santa.”
“No, we don’t.”
“So, what do you want for Hanukkah?” he retorted, already trained to handle the annoying smart-aleck Jewish boys.
“I don’t know. Whatever my parents get for me.”
“Do you want to whisper to Santa something you really really want and I will put in a good word for you?”
I leaned in. Santa had bad breath.
“Hot Wheels Stunt Track…maybe.”
“Very good. And were you a good boy this year?”
“Yeah,” I said, with a “Duh” tone to my voice, considering that Santa should already know this answer. Hadn’t he been taking notes all year on who was nice and who was naughty? I was beginning to doubt the authenticity of this department store Santa. Years later, I had a similar experience in Hebrew School when I questioned why God had to ask Adam if he had eaten from “The Tree of Life.”
“Why would he have to ask Adam this question?”
“He was testing him,” said grouchy Rabbi Ginsburg.
“It makes no sense.” I replied, using my young Talmudic knowledge. “If he was God, wouldn’t he already know this?”
As I left Macy’s, I told my father that I was not impressed with this Santa Claus. I asked my father for the truth. Was this red-suited guy with the fake beard and bad breath really “Santa Claus?”
“No. This Santa was a BAD one. Even I play a better Santa Claus. And I’m not even that fat.”
Something clicked in my head. If my father dresses as Santa, and the guy in Macy’s is a fake, then…
“There’s no Santa Claus, is there?” I questioned. “It makes no sense.”
“Nah,” he admitted, a little sad at the myth being put to rest. “There is no Santa Claus.”
He paused for a moment, and then took one more final stand, like the soldier climbing over the hill in a suicide mission.
“But maybe… just maybe… I AM Santa Claus!”
I didn’t buy it.
“If you were Santa Claus, you wouldn’t be living in Flushing, would you?”
I stumped him.
“No,” he said.
And that was the end of me believing in Santa Claus. It was fun while it lasted.
My father and I walked down 34th Street and went to Nathan’s for some hot dogs, then we went home, just in time for sunset and watching my mother light the Hanukkah menorah.