“Mom?” Rowan asks at the dinner table. “Mom? You know who Santa Claus is?”
The hand lifting the fork to my mouth doesn’t even tremble.
“Well, yes,” I say, slowly, evenly. My eyes meet Rachel’s across the table. “I do.”
Inside, however, I am moving into crisis mode, trying to quell the five-alarm siren that my son’s question has set off in my head. It’s okay, I remind myself — you’re prepared for this.
“He brings you presents,” says my four-year-old.
“Well,” I say, choosing my words carefully, trying to remember the script. “Some families tell a nice story about Santa Claus, and how he brings presents. But not all families tell that story. Our family tells a different story.”
“He comes down the chimney,” says Rowan.
“Yes,” I say, “that’s part of the story. Some families — okay, lots of families — have a holiday called Christmas. And they tell a story about how a man named Santa Claus comes down the chimney and brings presents. But we have different holidays. We have Hanukkah and Pesach and Rosh Hashanah. So we don’t tell the Santa Claus story.”
Rowan looks at me, eyes wide, absorbing my carefully thought out, painstakingly rehearsed presentation on “How Families Are Different (Or What It Means to Be the Only Jew in Your Junior Kindergarten Class).”
“And he brings you presents!” he chirps after a moment.
There are benefits and drawbacks to living in a small city. One of the hardest things — more than even the Safeway cashiers who talk too much, way more than being queer — is trying to raise Jewish children in place where they are a rare species. There are fewer than 30 Jewish families here, total, most of them older couples, many of them (like us) interfaith. There is one synagogue, with a tiny but active core, and a handful of children (one of whom, by the way, was born in the wee hours of this morning — we got a call at 4 a.m. and Rachel went over to take care of her older sister while her parents went ever so briefly to the hospital. Mazel tov!) Everywhere we go, well-meaning people ask Rowan if he’s excited for Santa to come. And this year, he’s old enough to know what they’re talking about.
I’m torn. It’s not that we don’t celebrate Christmas in some of its forms — I draw the line at a tree or wreaths, but we have hosted and attended lovely Christmas dinners. The kids get Christmas gifts from Rachel’s family and from their dad’s. And this year — right after doing Hanukkah with my side of the family — we will spend the holiday with Rachel’s sister in full-on Christmas mode. But I just can’t get it up to get all ho-ho-ho for the guy in the big red suit. Especially not in the absence of other stories.
So, what’s a Jew to do? In a couple of weeks, I’m going into Rowan’s class with a Hanukkah book and a menorah and some dreidels, and tell the kids a story. It won’t even things out, but at least I’m making an effort. What would you do?