Growing up Jewish, I was always jealous of my Christmas-celebrating friends and their sparkly decor. I didn’t long to be Christian; I just wanted to surround myself with that festive bling. However, I was never enchanted by Santa Claus. To me, he was just another fictional character that joined the ranks of the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, but that’s because I wasn’t raised in a family who celebrated Christmas. Even now, though, with our half-Jewish and half-Christian children, I refuse to do the whole Santa thing. For our family, who does not practice either of our religions, the spirit of the season can’t be found in a merry old soul’s sack of toys for "good" girls and boys.
It’s hard to escape Santa Claus, though. He’s everywhere: on wrapping paper, on food packaging, at Macy’s. He is, after all, “Father Christmas.” But he isn’t someone we really talk about anymore. My children are in fourth and first grade now, and our conversations about the holidays go a little deeper than the never-ending question, "What am I getting for Christmas?” Gifts are just part of this joyous time of year, and since Santa Claus is so specifically associated with presents, we’ve taken the emphasis off him.
So, while my not being Christian is an obvious reason for not talking up jolly St. Nick, there are some other reasons why I refuse to do the whole Santa thing with my kids, even though we celebrate Christmas, including the following:
Since I’m Jewish, I always knew the truth about Santa. As a kid I was told to keep quiet about it, since friends of mine bought into the fantasy. While I was excited to have a little bit of Christmas in our home, after marrying my (not practicing) Catholic spouse, I felt strange about straight-up lying to my children about Santa Claus’s existence. I let my husband do all the talking about it. When the kids were really little, I didn’t debunk the myth, exactly, but I didn’t outrightly lie. I also didn’t discourage my husband and his parents from talking about what Santa might bring the children. There was something so innocently sweet about their belief in this completely selfless man who just wanted to make children around the world (well, Christian children, if you want to get technical) happy.
But there was also something naggingly wrong about lying to my kids, just because they were young and innocent and didn’t know any better. The spirit of the season, I feel, doesn’t have to come in the form of presents from a jolly old soul. So as the kids grew older, and more suspicious of this “Santa” person, I let them arrive at the conclusion that he didn’t exist. “Just keep quiet,” I tell them, passing down the tradition of not blabbing the hard truth to friends who still believe. (I suppose this means I’m teaching my children to lie. Or am I just showing them how to be careful with others’ feelings?)
Before we moved last year, our apartment in Queens didn’t have a fireplace. City kids have it kind of rough when it comes to the whole “down the chimney” aspect of Santa Claus. If lying to my kids about a mythical creature felt wrong, then fabricating an explanation of how Santa can “break in” to our apartment, with its double locks, child safety guards, and metal gate on the fire escape window, felt downright icky.
Up until last year, which was my younger kid’s first year in grade school, we had labeled a few of their gifts as being from “Santa.” I couldn’t resist; there was something magical about them unwrapping a box from someone who wasn’t related to them, and finding something fun inside, as if that stranger, Santa Claus, somehow “knew” the kids would love it. To be understood is all children really want, right?
But that was a few years ago, and while my younger kid probably would have kept on believing in Santa, his older sister put the kibosh on the charade. I couldn’t be angry at her for being truthful, and her little brother pretty much shrugged it off as if, at age five, he somehow sensed this was all too good to be true. As long as the holidays weren’t canceled, as long as we let them eat sugar cereal for Christmas morning breakfast, as long as there were some gifts and family and the Disney parade on TV, it was all good.
I’m going to be waiting in lines during the holiday season no matter what, so why throw salt in the wound by waiting in line with children to have them pose with a stranger, which will probably terrify them, triggering a crying fit, and becoming fodder for the most awkward Christmas family photo ever?
Some kids take to Santa like an old friend. I get it; with all the Santa-centric paraphernalia (books, movies, commercials), he is a familiar face. But my kids have been receiving lessons in “stranger danger” from their earliest pre-school days, so plunking them down on the lap of a strange man in a beard obscuring most of his face could probably launch them into a panic attack.
Is it just me, or is the practice of having a stranger in costume hoist a small child onto his lap so the kid can whisper his or her most coveted wishes for this stranger to make true, inherently creepy?
Do the mall Santas get a thorough wipe-down between lap visitors? Nope. Might there be snot and tears and other bodily fluids left from previous customers when my child climbs aboard? Yup. So I’ll take a hard pass on this Santa thing, thanks.
When my kids still “believed,” they drew pictures and left snacks out for Santa and the reindeer. At around 4-years-old, they grasped the idea of leaving a little “thank you” note in that way, for the jolly entity delivering gifts to them in the middle of the night.
Now that they are six and nine, I want them to know that people in their lives are taking the time to choose and purchase gifts for them, and recognize those actual people. I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that they just have to be good, and some out-of-this-world being brings them presents. I want my kids to be good because it makes their mom happier, their home sweeter, and, ultimately, their lives better.
I really don’t think I need to raise children whose motivation to be good is a pile of presents that will lose their appeal after a few months of play. Being “good” doesn’t have an endgame. One of the hardest parts of parenting is getting my kids to understand that their lives will be better, more fulfilling, if they are just good people for the mere sake of being good people. Being good spreads joy. Being good shows kindness. Being good is priceless.
So yes, my kids will be opening gifts this Christmas, because the act of giving brings me joy. However, they will also be doing their fair share of donating, choosing, wrapping, and giving. It’s not an easy lesson, especially when the kids’ ages are still in the single digits, but my husband and I are working hard to teach our children that doing good is just as important as being good.