Eleven more days and counting

I do my best not to lie to my children.   If a shot is going to hurt, I acknowledge that fact.  If they want to know about sex, I give them the straightforward – albeit simplified – response.  If they see pictures of unrest in Iran on the cover of a magazine in the grocery store, I try to explain the importance of fair elections.

And when Zach came home from his Jewish preschool talking about God, I was honest then, too.  “Many people believe that God exists,” I told him.  “I do not.”

“Well, I believe in God,” he told me.

“That’s fine.  A lot of people do.  I just don’t.”  To be frank, it made me uncomfortable.  I am not at all on the fence on this one.  I am quite sure that God does not exist.  And I do not like my kids being indoctrinated into a belief that I do not hold.  However, I made the choice to send them to a Jewish preschool because it is their culture, and I get that part of that package is a discussion of the Big Guy.  So be it.  It’s definitely not the worst thing he could pick up in preschool.

Now that we are here in New Jersey, however, he is in a public kindergarten.  With children of different faiths.  But mostly children of one faith.  The predominate one here in the U.S.  In the middle of December.

So my kid is coming home from school believing in Santa Claus.  This is a hell of a lot worse than believing in God, I must say.  At least that’s a belief that fits into the general arc of my own culture.  Santa Claus is big problem on several levels.

I think even if we were Christian, I would not want my kids spending this solemn and holy day thinking about some dude in a red velvet suit.  As a member of a minority faith, the Santa Mania that grips our culture in the month of December is enough to cause a minor seizure.  People in diners lean over to ask my children if they have been good and then to promise that stockings they haven’t hung and trees we do not have will be laden with presents brought by some fictional character who breaks into our house in the middle of the night.  Everywhere we go, we are accosted by guys with pillow bellies and crusty fake beards, wanting to grab my kids and promise them whatever goodies they might desire.

Here’s a little tip, people.  Not everyone celebrates Christmas. You are promising gifts and festivities to small people that they will not receive.  And, even worse in my book, this Santa Mania holds that good boys and girls get whatever they desire.  Well, here’s another news flash.  Santa brings the good shit to the rich kids.  Poor parents or even those who are just struggling a little bit can’t deliver on the promise, which means that their kids learn a terrific lesson – Santa is fundamentally unfair and discriminatory.  Fan-fucking-tastic.

Today, my child will participate in a Polar Express party at school.  I do not mind this so much, as they are giving equal time to Kwanzaa and Chanukah, and they are making it about bringing a book and a cultural tradition come to life.  The teacher has been careful to present Santa as a part of one culture.  However, since the majority of the kids are Christian, they are all blathering on about Santa in every free moment.

“Santa’s not real,” I told Zachary.  “But you shouldn’t tell that to the other children, because he is a part of the Christian tradition and they may believe in him.  A lot of people do believe in him.”

“Well, I believe in him,” my son replied.  We had this conversation about eight times before I decided that, hell, at least my kid wouldn’t be the one ruining Santa for the other children.  I could take comfort in the fact that I had told him the truth and he had chosen not to believe it.

“Why hasn’t anyone seen Santa?” he asked.

“Well, people who believe in Santa say that he only comes when you are sleeping.”

“But what if I pretend to be asleep?  Then I’ll see him.”

“People who believe in Santa say that he can tell if you are just pretending.”

“Well, I believe in Santa and if I am good he’ll bring me something in my stocking.”

“You don’t have a stocking,” I pointed out.

“Oh, yes I do.  I have one I made in art class in school.  And Santa is going to fill it on Christmas.”

“Honey, we don’t celebrate Christmas.”

“But I believe in Santa Claus, so he is going to come.”

I lost my whole resolve not to fight a losing battle.  Because now the poor kid was going to think he was being punished by Santa Claus for some infraction of the maddeningly oblique “Be Good” rule.  “Zach, Santa Claus is not real.  But don’t mention that to your friends at school.”

“Maybe you could pretend to be Santa and if I am good you could put something into the stocking like money or a present.”  Oh, good grief.  It is tiring enough dealing with the eight nights of Chanukah, now he wants me to pretend to be some offensively commercial figment of another religion’s imagination?

Come the twenty-fifth, we’re planning on trying not to mention that this day is actually Christmas.  Maybe he just won’t notice that Santa didn’t come because he won’t realize that this is the big day.  No matter what, however, my husband and I are really looking forward to January.

30 responses to “Eleven more days and counting

  1. Actually it’s better to believe in Santa because you usually grow out of it quite naturally.

  2. This definitely can be a tough and confusing time. Being a mixed faith (sort of, since I don’t really believe in god either), makes things complicated for us. We celebrate Chanukah in our home, but the kids get “christmas” with my family. For them it is just about Santa, and I want to keep it that way. Too hard to explain about Christ and all.

    But it is funny, even though my kids technically participate in Christmas, I get offended when people assume (I hate assuming). At the doctors office the other day, they all made comments about how fun Christmas morning would be with twins. I dryly said “we start chanukah tomorrow night.” It was mean of me, but I liked watching them squirm. Why do people still make these assumptions today?

  3. She Started It

    Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t imagine how painful it is to not celebrate Christmas during this time of year. Good for you for sticking to your guns.

    The funny thing is, is that in our area, we are surrounded by Hindus and Buddhists — so my kids are among the few who celebrate Christmas. Ironically, the Hindus have some of the biggest and brightest Christmas decorations around!

  4. When I was a kid, one year before Christmas, my favorite toy store had a little pamphlet at the counter. It explained that you should write down what toys you wanted and give it to your parents, and then Santa would bring it to you.

    I asked my mom about it and she explained that it wasn’t for us. I was very annoyed. I had no idea who this “Santa” was, but if the toy store had hired him to give away free toys, why on earth would my mom insist on turning it down?

  5. I actually quite vividly remember finding out that Santa wasn’t real from an older kid at church, and being completely devastated and crying all night because the entire world had participated in making a fool of me. It’s a funny story I tell now, but I deeply remember that hurt. Even though we are celebrating Christmas, I am buying only a couple presents because the naked materialism makes me uncomfortable, and I am wrestling with whether I will say anything at all about Santa. I think I might leave that to the realm of grandparents and school and let it be for a few years.

  6. Anono-berg-stein

    As a Jewish child of two Jewish parents, we celebrated Christmas in addition to Chanukah(which I still can’t spell). I always knew Chanukah was my “real” holiday (how could I not, I lit the Menorah every year in the school assembly) but I loved the magic of Santa bringing me presents and rewarding me for good behavior. I truly believed, and for a remarkably long time. Once I was old enough to understand the truth that Santa wasn’t a real person, we stopped celebrating Christmas. At the same time, I was old enough to understand that my parents had spent a lot of time and energy creating whimsical fun for me and giving someone else the credit. And that meant a lot to me. It never ruined my Jewish identity and I have a lot of great memories from it, as well as a deep appreciation for my parents and their generosity. I’m certainly not telling you to do X-mas for your kids, becuase it doesn’t sound like the right fit for you. I’m telling you this story in hopes of giving you a little comfort that society isn’t screwing up your kid’s life by introducing Santa into it. And, your son is remarkably smart and cute to ask you to pretend to be Santa.

    Secondly, I’ve heard of families that give a few presents to their children and then ask that their child choose one (or more) to give to a less fortunate child. For those out there that relate to your sentiment that Christmas leans unfairly to financially priveledged, this might be something to consider.

  7. It’s good that you speak your mind, and you generally do it wittily and thought-provokingly. Maybe I deserve to be tarred with your big huge Christmas-hating brush. We do make an effort to make sure needful families are helped out at Christmas, personally and through our school and hockey team. My kids love Santa, crusty beard and all. It’s true there are issues of materialism and commercialism with Christmas, like there are with many other things. If you don’t want your kids hearing about stuff at school that you don’t agree with ever, you’re probably going to have to start home-schooling. At any rate, happy January, happy blog, happy life. I don’t think I’ll be back.

  8. I can’t agree with you more. Here is a book that really helps parents who want to raise freethinking,empathetic, and compassionate children. It is about raising ethical kids without Religion and includes ideas for Humanist ceremonies. the book is “Parenting Beyond Belief”
    edited by Dale McGowan.

  9. my Jewish SIL, who lives in a small & 95% Christmas-celebrating-city wrote something very similar in a comment on my own Santa post a week or two back. basically, she has a 5 and 3 yr old and she can’t wait for the new year. she doesn’t mean Rosh Hashanah.

    on our side of the family, it’s a bit easier for sure, but as we’re not too keen to build up belief in much of anything there’s still a lot of cognitive dissonance this time of year as we cope with the constant invasion of “what is Santa bringing you?”

    all i got is sympathy. and yeh, skip the 25th if you can. some of us would kinda like to, but will be dragged by cultural imperatives and family obligations into recreating some semblance of the status quo.

  10. Allison,
    It’s not like you to willfully misunderstand. This is very clearly an anti-Santa Mania post, not an anti-Christmas post. Frankly, I think if anyone deserves a big deal made over his birthday, it’s probably Jesus.

  11. We are raising Ryan without religion, I am spiritual, my beliefs are pretty private and non-specific, and Matt is very Atheist. We were both raised Catholic, but left the church in our twenties. We will teach him respect for all religions, and let him choose what he wants to beleive.

    That being said, we LOVE Christmas. Santa, stockings, candy canes, trees, etc. December the 25th is about being with your family, and about love, is what we tell Ryan. Yes, there are gifts, and fun, but it’s mostly about celebrating with family, and tradition. We don’t say anything about being good or bad when it comes to Santa, we just say he is a nice man who loves children and toys. It’s a very strange grey area we are navigating, there is no black or white, and I am nervous about the next few years when Ryan starts asking more questions. I don’t want to lie to him, and in a small, crazy way, I DO believe in Santa, but I want him to decide for himself.

    I can imagine it must be so difficult to exist during the Christmas season when it’s ecerywhere and people just assume you celebrate Christmas.

    (BTW,our holiday cards have a photo of Ryan dressed in his Jedi costume, and say “May the Force be with you this holdiay season” 🙂

  12. I don’t know how we missed the Santa indoctrination. We do have a St Nicholas tradition (as one Child was born in Germany) so the kids would put out a shoe or slipper on Dec 5th – and receive one tiny (and inexpensive) toy and a small bag of candy. They do hang up stockings but not one of them ever mentioned Santa as part of the process – probably natural greed on their part and a desire not to inquire to deeply into a mysterious but lucrative system. I suppose when I talked about it I used the term Father Christmas which was what I knew as a child – a far more stern and frightening character than Santa Claus and therefore more attractive to me as I liked a fair bit of menace with my whimsy!

    I find myself infuriated with the adverts I can’t avoid – the ones on television where the announcer gushes about how guilty the parents will feel if every last whim of little Junior’s acquisitive little heart isn’t satisfied, where the child reels off this endless list of wants and the mother looks on all misty eyed and loving. I hated that when I was a child my Christmas was ‘inferior’ because I didn’t get expensive presents and I hate that as an adult there is a niggling, irritating, STUPID little voice going on about how many presents my kids need in order to feel loved.

    I’m a fellow atheist but cultural christian and find myself much less annoyed by some (not all) of the religious trappings than by the secular hangers-on. I don’t have an answer or a suggestion or anything – helpful I know – just a lot of sympathy for a situation that has no simple solution.

  13. good grief. I feel you, dude. totally. I can’t get the screaming match that I had with my sister in law over this same topic out of my head . I am, of course, a “bad mother” for telling my child there is no Santa. (sigh) Much better to have her be lied to and learn the lovely lesson that Santa is a bigot and doesn’t seem to favor poor kids, right?

  14. I think what is important to point out is that not all Christians buy into the Santa-mania. Christians, and by that I don’t mean cultural-Christians, celebrate Christmas, not Santa. The Santa-mania is a secular obsession. Yes, many Christians participate in the excitement of Santa, but so do many Hindu, Muslim, Atheist and Jewish families.

    I have a small idea of how hard it is to live in a place where you are a cultural and religious minority, having lived in Hong Kong. But I cannot imagine how hard it is to raise a family against the cultural norm. Kudos to you for not bowing to the pressure, and at the same time teaching your children sensitivity to others beliefs.

  15. My kids believed in Santa and nothing I said could dissuade them. However it didn’t bother them that we didn’t celebrate Christmas or that Santa didn’t come to their house. They do like decorating and this year I gave them a combined budget of $10 at the dollar store. They bought non-religious ornaments and a package of hanukah glittery cardboard dreidels and menorahs and hung and taped things here and there all over the house. The Christmas tree is a generational thing. We don’t have one. When I was a kid, Jewish families defined themselves by lack of a Christmas tree. But a lot of Jewish people of my parents’ generation grew up with Christmas trees and still see it as a pleasant secular custom.

  16. The Santa Mania is annoying, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair to pin it on Santa. Even if he weren’t involved, I think that we can be trusted to go completely overboard all the same. That’s the part that really bugs me – it’s the Buy! Buy! Buy! that just doesn’t stop.

    I am (culturally) Christian, and I do Santa mostly because I enjoyed it as a child. But I do sort of hate the whole good / bad thing that’s going on. And I try to keep it as low-key as possible. I can see how it would be particularly difficult if you didn’t celebrate Christmas – I struggle with my own 4-year-old’s overly enthusiastic adoption of the holiday, and we celebrate it.

    Here’s to Zachary completely overlooking Christmas proper. 🙂

  17. I think it’s important not to equate Santa automatically with Christianity. While certainly many Christians do celebrate Christmas with Santa, there’s no causal relationship there. Some Christians avoid him altogether, some don’t. Quite a few of us, as other posters have said, make giving to others the central focus of this holiday. When you separate faith from culture, you’re bound to have a few loose ends- and so your kids will have to figure things out on their own. Not sure why it’s so bothersome- kind of like living among Jews and complaining about all the menorahs. Building tolerance might mean you have to step beyond your own prejudices to allow for other points of view- and yes, that means dealing with all the stuff you don’t like, just as much as the traditions you *do*. Blessings to you and yours- however you celebrate this time.

  18. Tricky. Good luck! I’m what Hitchens would call a Christian atheist, so basically ALL Christmas for us is Santa, presents, and decorations!

  19. I’ve had to fight this fight, actually, already, with Nat. While he’s not Jewish or anti-religion, he’s a persnickety ass-bag who thought fit to not raise our son with Santa. Not for any real reason, save for being kind of a jerk. You’d kind of have to know him to understand that he’s the kind of person who likes to take the joy out of things for other people.

    That said, I did fight this fight for my son because while I’m not a Christian–hell, I’m not baptized as ANYTHING–I think that the idea of Santa and the magic of the season is special and important to kids.

    Obviously, this is your choice and I do understand how living as a Jew in a very Christian culture during this time of year must be really hard on kids. I do not understand a whole LOT about Christian stories and reasons for things in our culture. I often feel like a stranger.

    I do remember this fight and I think that having the magic of the season for children–no matter what that means–is important.

  20. well, I think that many families struggle with this time of year, and for many different reasons. Andrew was told by a child in his class that Christians just made up the whole “Santa-thing” because they were jealous of Chanukah…that Santa was just your parents giving you presents…and that anyone who believes in Santa is a “total baby.” Andrew, in his “Andrew-way,” calmly told the boy that everyone has different beliefs, but that he shouldn’t say those things about Santa because they were mean, and just hurt Santa’s feelings.
    Ethan, on the other hand, announced to me this morning during the ride to school that he was “actually an independent so you (meaning me) can start giving me my Chanukah presents tonight.” I very calmly told him that, no, he wasn’t jewish, but if that he was interested in learning more about Judaism, I would be more than happy to sign him up for some classes as his Chanukah present this year. Ethan is 5- he is all about the commercialism…..oh that and the soundtrack for Jesus Christ Superstar.

  21. Well said, Emily. I struggle with how we will deal with this. My husband is a lapsed Christian and I am a cultural Jew. And the thing I dislike the most about this season is the presumption that EVERYONE celebrates Christmas. As I brought my newborn son out of the hospital just two weeks ago, the nurse pushing my wheelchair was talking about “what an amazing Christmas present he was to me and my family”. I corrected her and told her I was Jewish, and he was a just a regular present, but thanks for the sentiment. I couldn’t help it. Maybe all the fake snow and poinsettia in the lobby was clouding my judgement.
    I don’t hate Christmas, I just don’t care about it at all. And I really don’t want to wind up with two children who are supremely gung ho for gorging on presents and the fat dude in red. Growing up I always knew Santa wasn’t real because I went to a Jewish Day School. I was totally unperturbed about this. I even felt a little sorry for the Christian kids that they were living a lie. I mean, Santa was nothing compared to the Tooth Fairy. SHE had wings!
    I know Jewish private schools are expensive. Especially in this day and age. Still, keep the kids in Hebrew School if you can. At least they can talk about how much fun Christmas looks compared to Yom Kipppor with other kids just like them.

  22. Oy. Sometimes I think I can’t wait until my children stop believing in Santa (and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and Halloween Hal and ….) But then I realize that will also be the beginning of the end of magic for them, and that’s a sad thought.

  23. It does sound like a wearisome time of year for you. And people do seem to make assumptions. We do more Santa than Jesus, oddly enough because of our religion (strange, but it would take a whole blog post to explain). My 10 year old is having a Polar Express day on Friday. My preschooler’s school is actually focusing more on the Nutcracker as their theme leading up to the break. And both seem to be a way to take religion out of the equation, but i guess it really doesn’t, does it?

  24. I fell into a brief, passionate love affair with South Park after viewing The Fierce Battle Between Jesus and Santa Claus. Those guys *get* Christmas, for real.

    I grew up with Christmas, but I was happy to let it drop. My family, however, demanded our presnce every year- not for us, but for my children, which was so much better. We finally put our foot down a few years ago, and I’ve been really happy about it. I like feeling like we have the world to ourself on Christmas, as well as Easter. I’ve bugged my husband to do the Jew-from-NYC thing and make it a day for Chinese food and movies, and he finally likes the idea.

    I’ve read from Christians that they are downright offended by the yucky commercialism and materialism that comes with modern Christmas. And Christmas wasn’t “Christmas” until advertisers figured out how to sell it. And they sold it to Jews as well as Christians. Thanks- but no thanks. The only thing I like about it is the generosity it invites towards the needy.

  25. We celebrate Christmas though definitely are not Christian… I’ve made it whole, in my mind at least, by talking about ritual, yearly celebrations, and joy of giving. And say that Santa is the spirit of these things. It changes a bit every year as the kids get older… LOVE your ways of thinking and talking about it.

  26. The whole winter holiday season is such a loaded thing. We did a pretty secular Christmas when I was growing up, and we were the poster children for over-consumption, I have to say. (My mother’s parents considered it their personal mission to ensure that we had every piece of molded plastic ever made.) To their credit though, Santa never brought presents based on behavior – he just showed up no matter what. And we got the historical backstory on Santa/St. Nicolas, and exposure to how other cultures represented him. (My mom was big on stealth lessons in history and culture.)

    And to be honest, I was much older (and long past believing in an actual fairytale Santa) when I realized the rich/poor dichotomy. It wasn’t something that I was aware of as a kid.

    I really wish I had some advice to give, or at least a relatively helpful experience. Frankly, it sounds like it would be both maddening and a little heartbreaking from a parental point of view to fight the uphill battle that is the Retail Christmas Season. I don’t envy you that. And I will keep my fingers crossed that the 25th passes without notice. (Although – and I hate to point this out – “what I got for Christmas” is likely to be the hot topic at school for a few days following the holiday, or the return from school break. So even if the 25th passes without notice, you might still have some fallout. Just a heads-up, in case you hadn’t realized.)

  27. I remember my mother asking “what does it mean to believe in something?”.

  28. Oh boy. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and it’s nice to have someone else express it so clearly!! My husband and I are both Jewish, although not religiously so. Neither of us really believe in God or religion, and it isn’t a big issue – except for every year at this time. We have 6 year old twin boys now, and live in a very Christian town – with no family near by. The few people I know who are Jewish, are married to someone Christian, and so celebrate both holidays with their families.

    I remember how left out I felt growing up Jewish in a predominantly Christian town, even though I did go to Hebrew School for a time and did know some Jewish people.

    I so desperately don’t want my kids to feel left out like I did, but I just can’t make myself do Xmas stuff as it just feels wrong. So, for the last few years, I’ve been attempting to make Chanukah as fun as I possibly can – lighting the candles each night, playing dreidel, giving lots of gifts to compensate for how lame this holiday actually is compared to Xmas, having a little party with some friends at our house, going to any local Chanukah party I can find, etc.

    This year, though, my boys are finally catching on to how excited and involved all of their peers are with the whole Santa thing, and are starting to feel those left out feelings. They realize that they are each the only Jew in each of their classes, and have to constantly explain “Well, we celebrate Chanukah . . . ” – as do I.

    Finally, last week, one of my boys made a comment that broke me – he said, very sweetly – “Mom, Chanukah is fun . . . but . . Santa is MAGICAL!!” – So . . . I ended up deciding to have them each write a letter to Santa asking if maybe he could bring a small gift to them despite the fact that they’re Jewish. They wrote the cutest letters and were SOOOOO happy.

    And, shockingly, I am at peace with this, and got them some stuff from their lists. Not exactly sure where “Santa” will put the gifts – or how I will logistically do this, but well – that’s that. I feel like I’ve compromised my values a bit, but I couldn’t fight the fight any more. I’m sure it won’t be long before they realize he’s a fake, anyway.

    Thanks again, for sharing your story and giving me a place to share mine!

  29. I’m surprised you didn’t complain about this in England. They are obsessed with assuming everyone believes in Father Christmas. Has it gotten better over there, or was it just that you expected better in the states?

  30. it must be so hard. not doing the santa thing is a little hard for us, but we still do Xmas (obviously) so we can kind of skirt around it. but for you…. oy vey. good luck.