Thunder Bay, Ont. writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences.
I’m actually early for my morning bootcamp class. This never happens, but it’s nice to have a few moments to chat with the other women in the gym before we start doing push-ups and medicine-ball squats. Since it’s a busy holiday month, the discussion revolves around shopping (for the record, I would rather be anywhere but a store), which inevitably leads to discussion of the holidays.
“So,” one of the other moms in the class asks me, “do your kids still … you know… believe in Santa?”
This is a slightly tricky question.
My children, as far as I know, do not still believe in Santa.
Read more: How do you explain Santa? >
But this is because they have never — at least, as far as I know — believed in Santa.
My children do not believe in Santa Claus primarily because they are Jewish, and we have never had to negotiate the whole Santa Claus rite of passage. That said, my spouse, Rachel, is not Jewish, and we have always incorporated — to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the year — Christmas celebrations into our December rituals. But getting our children to believe in Santa Claus has never been one of those rituals.
And I have to say, I’m happy about that.
Maybe I would feel differently if good old St. Nick had been part of my cultural/religious upbringing. But having been raised in a Jewish household, I had zero emotional attachment to the idea of Santa Claus. It never occurred to me that Santa was real, but also never occurred to me that my friends who celebrated Christmas actually believed that he was real either. As far as I understood it, Santa was a story they told, with some nudge-nudge-wink-wink action to let everyone know that they were all in on the joke. Kind of like how we Jews treated the whole issue of whether Elijah the prophet actually did arrive at the Passover Seder and drank from that glass of wine poured especially for him: We all watched to see any wine disappeared from the glass, but no one’s enjoyment of the holiday was riding on whether all the kids believed — or not.
So, when my children come home from their public school asking about Santa, and whether he will visit our house, that’s what we tell them: that Santa isn’t a real person. He’s a fun story that people who celebrate Christmas tell about the holiday. And no, no jolly man dressed in a red suit is going to come down our chimney and leave toys for them. No matter how much they want him to, and no matter what the kids at school say.
That said, we also have told our kids not to press the matter with their non-Jewish friends. It’s not polite, we tell them, to rain all over anyone’s Santa Claus parade. (As an atheist, I’ve taken a similar line with my kids about God: as far as I’m concerned, no, there is no God, just a series of God-stories that different peoples have created to help explain the world and the way to act in it. Still, it’s generally not a good idea to force your opinion about God onto other people, and vice versa.)
Undoubtedly, I would feel differently about Santa if I had grown up with Christmas, but as an outsider, I do find the whole thing a bit baffling. A teacher friend of mine tells me that kids in his fifth- and sixth-grade classes still believe — fervently — that good old St. Nick shows up at their houses and fills their stockings every year. Other friends talk about the betrayal they felt when they found out that Santa was in fact just a story, and about their own anxieties about betraying their own children now that they are parents. I just came across an article written by a psychologist on how parents can help their young kids overcome their fear of Santa. And frankly, I’m thinking, if your kid is scared of the guy, why are you forcing her to sit on his lap?
It seems to me that Santa (maybe like Christmas itself?) comes with his fair share of anxiety and stress. Will he come? Is he watching you now? Will he bring you what you wanted? Do you believe? Should you believe? When do you stop believing and at what cost?
For the record, I like a good story. I think that stories — including stories from the Bible, or the Koran, or other religious texts — are how we make sense of the world. I don’t even mind the Santa story. I’m happy to tell it to my kids. But I’m also relieved that I don’t have to pretend that it’s true.