12/24/2012 12:57 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2013

Jews and Santa

"Who is Santa, really?"

In a family where each December is filled with candles, latkes and dreidels, I wasn't sure when, or if, I would ever have to tackle this question. And yet, last year, my son started pressing me for an answer. He had remarkably made it five years without hearing a peep about Santa, and had only just caught on to the fact that a holiday exists called Christmas.

It all started after he had been on a playdate that ended up at a local flagship candle store that prides itself on sharing the Christmas spirit year-round. It was there that he met Santa for the first time. He returned, high on candle fumes, and chattered endlessly about Old Saint Nick, before stopping, mid-sentence, to verify the existence of the man he had met earlier.

" Who do you think he is?"

I patted myself on the back for my quick thinking as I watched my son's nose scrunch up in thought.

"I don't know. That's why I'm asking you."


I scrambled for something to say, and was left a bit flummoxed, for a few reasons. While Christmas wasn't our holiday, I was also well aware of how omnipresent it is, and how potentially isolating that can feel. And I wanted to find a way to explain both Santa and the holiday without having my son feel like a lonely Jew on Christmas who was missing out on something.

At the same time, I didn't want my son to be that kid... you know the one. The child who ruins the Santa magic for the rest of them. For some reason, I felt the added pressure of ensuring he wouldn't become that kid since we are Jewish and don't celebrate Christmas. While I understood it wasn't my responsibility to uphold a story we didn't share in our own home, I also knew that my son's close friends believed in Santa, and would be crushed if he destroyed that belief. So, I defaulted to my most called upon parenting trick and winged it. I told him that most holidays, no matter who celebrated them, usually have a story attached to them. He was already familiar with the stories of Passover, Purim and Chanukah, and easily accepted this line of thought. I explained that for those who celebrate Christmas, Santa is a part of their story, like Judah Maccabee is a part of ours. In that moment, my answer seemed like a good compromise without lying or having him ruin it for others.

He seemed satisfied with my answer, but then pressed a bit more, asking why we didn't celebrate Christmas like all his friends. While it can be difficult to stand by as he tackles these big, hard-to-answer questions, it's amazing to watch as he navigates his place in the larger world. In an effort to help, I reminded him that one of the best parts about holidays is sharing them with others. To live up to that, we spent Christmas Eve with friends who celebrate it, and had them and others over during Chanukah for candle lighting and latkes.

A year later and my son still looks at Santa in a questioning manner, but hasn't brought it up beyond one moment a few weeks ago. We were out with friends of ours who has a kid my son's age. As the boys were all running around, the other child told my son, You better behave, Santa is watching." Without missing a beat, he answered, "Nah, he doesn't watch me because I'm Jewish!"

It probably helps that he started attending a Jewish day school this year, where he can feel like part of a larger community as opposed to "the other." However, that doesn't isolate him from the world at large, it's apparent that he's aware of this. A visit to a local bank reaffirmed this awareness when he questioned why it was decorated just for Christmas and not for, "you know, like my holiday, Hanukkah." It was one of those parenting moments where I just didn't have a solid answer, but we talked it through as best we could.

And so, this year, just like we've done in the past, we'll find our own way through December. We'll decorate our home with Hanukkah decorations and holiday cards from friends. We'll revel in the bright lights and festively decorated homes that we pass on these early, dark, winter nights. We'll make cookies cut into the shapes of dreidels and menorahs -- and eat them all instead of leaving some out for anyone who slides down our chimney. We'll join friends as they celebrate their holidays, and invite them into our home to celebrate ours. We'll go out for Chinese and a movie on the 25th, because that's just what we do.