As lies often do, this whole Santa thing started small — so small I’m not even sure how it began.
On my daughter’s first Christmas, she was just a month shy of one year. We had a tree — the same small, fake tree we’d bought in 2014, at the start of our first winter in the United States — but there was no talk of Santa.
But somehow, by her second Christmas, despite attending a Jewish preschool and never watching TV, my daughter had imbibed enough American culture that there was much excitement about the man she called “Santa Yaws.”
My husband and I had never discussed whether or not we’d do Santa. For my husband — a Palestinian Muslim immigrant to America — Santa Claus was new and exciting. For me — an American Jewish immigrant to Israel who’d spent the better part of a decade in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the West Bank — it was fun to see this part of my childhood resurrected.
Neither of us felt that partaking in Christmas undermines our identities. If anything, growing up in the Deep South where churches and Christianity and Santa and Christmas were everywhere only sharpened my sense of myself as a Jew.
In other words, I don’t object to Santa on religious grounds. But, like other parents before me, I do worry that fostering a belief in him involves lying and that even white lies can be a slippery slope.
And so I didn’t set out to turn my daughter into a Santa-obsessed kid. How did it happen? There could only be one answer: because of me.
On our daily walks and runs through the neighborhood when my daughter was still very young, I’d pointed out Santa Claus in Christmas decorations. Outside of one woman’s house — a woman we call “The Turkey Lady” because of her extravagant Thanksgiving display — we counted the many Santa Clauses tacked to her fence. I told myself that it was a great numeracy exercise.
At some point, too, I started playing Christmas music during those walks and runs. Because how else would we feel the change of season here in South Florida, where we only have two temperatures: hot and hotter.
Santa wasn’t just in our neighborhood. He was everywhere — an inflatable Santa stood along the road that we took to preschool every morning; he was outside the grocery store and inside it, too.
Amid all the oohing and aahing, I never bothered to explain that St. Nick is just a fiction. My daughter thought he was real and I didn’t disabuse her of that. Maybe because I wanted to believe in Santa, too.
So, around the time my daughter started talking about “Santa Yaws,” we brought him into our home in the form of a tiny Santa-shaped pillow and a reindeer-pulling-Santa banner (hey, I found it in the one-dollar bin at Target). We started baking cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve and, of course, we put carrots and celery out for the reindeer, too.
When my daughter heard a bump in the night one Christmas Eve and breathlessly announced to me in the morning that she’d heard Santa, I didn’t tell her the truth — that it had actually been me falling into the wall as I struggled to carry bags of gifts up the stairs. I just said, “Wow! You did?”
But, this year, we’ve taken lying to a whole new level.
A few weeks ago, I found a tiny mailbox at the grocery store. It was so cute: red, with a little knob that reminded me of Rudolph’s nose, and a postal stamp of that jolly old fellow standing just above the words “Letters to Santa.”
But it was a little expensive ($7) and I wondered if this “decoration” would require going too far. My daughter would write to Santa and would expect him to write back. I would compose a letter, impersonating Santa, and she would believe it was really him. I would be knitting the lie around her eyes even more tightly than I had already.
It’ll be a literacy exercise. I told myself. It’ll be a fun way to do some extra reading and writing and spelling together at home. It’s project-based learning.
When I took the mailbox home, my daughter was thrilled to find it in the grocery bag. My Palestinian Muslim immigrant husband was excited, too, and eagerly nailed it to the fence, just beyond the flamboyan tree we decorated with lights and ornaments this year — the seed of which my daughter planted during lockdown in spring of 2020.
My daughter and son took to the paint-splattered kitchen table, pencil and paper in hand, and, together, we composed letters to Santa. For my 4-year-old boy, that meant a list of toys (A tablet! A robot!) and one question: Will you bring candy canes?
But for my 5-year-old girl, the letter was a string of questions, written on multiple pieces of paper: Why is Christmas on the 25? How do you get to houses? Why is this called Christmas? Why is this a Christian holiday?
They folded them into squares and stuffed them into the tiny red mailbox.
At night, as they slept, I composed a response — typed, so my children wouldn’t recognize my handwriting.
I took it as yet another opportunity to educate them about Christianity and Jesus, while reminding them that we are Jews and Muslims. (We have had many talks already: Jesus, we say, was a very cool guy. For the Muslims, Jesus was a prophet named Issa. But, for us Jews, we’re still waiting for our messiah.)
I told them about Bethlehem and Palestine and snuck in bits of Arabic and Hebrew and even a word of Spanish. I reminded them that this time of year is a great time to do tzedakah, Hebrew for charity (sadaqah in Arabic). I even discussed human rights.
Once it was finished and printed, my husband slipped the letter into the box.
My daughter went straight outside first thing in the morning and was delighted to find Santa’s response. We all curled up on our gray couch together and read it as a family.
It was an idyllic moment — one of those holiday postcard scenes I’ve always dreamed of — but I couldn’t enjoy it.
As I read the letter aloud, I didn’t hear the words coming out of my mouth. I heard, instead, the ticker tape of anxiety spooling through my head: You’ve gone too far. You’re not playing along anymore. You’re actively deceiving them. You’re a liar. She’s going to figure this all out and she’ll be devastated. She’ll never trust you again and she won’t come to you when she needs someone to talk to.
Nightmare scenarios of drug use and teenage pregnancy — all resulting from this childhood deception — flashed through my head.
I worried that this thing I’ve been doing in hopes of building a relationship with my children will ruin it. (I do take some comfort, however, that many generations of parents have wrestled with the Santa dilemma. Or have at least questioned it: A study conducted by the University of Nebraska in 1896 asked 1,500 school-age children about when they learned Santa wasn’t real and their feelings about this fiction.)
Already, my daughter has been having doubts about Santa. A couple of years ago, when she was almost 4, she realized that we don’t have a chimney. She also knows that we’re vigilant about locking the front door. “How does Santa get in?” she asked.
“Good question,” I said, trying to buy some time, not wanting to lie. “How do you think he gets in?”
“Well, he lands on the roof,” she reasoned. “Maybe from the balcony?”
“Must be. But I wonder how he gets from the roof to the balcony?”
And we puzzled over both the safety and the physics of that.
Then, this year, upon seeing a couple of real, live Santas — one at a Christmas parade in St. Augustine, the other at a Christmas circus in a Palm Beach Gardens parking lot — she was unexcited. Neither, she informed me, was real.
In St. Augustine, she’d seen Santa getting into his costume as we walked the parade route beforehand.
Of the Palm Beach Gardens parking lot Santa — whom she’d taken a picture with — she simply said, “His beard was fake.”
But she only told me this later, after the elves had beckoned to me to join them, too, in the photo. Grinning, I’d reluctantly sat down between Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
Could it be that my daughter knows already? Is she playing along because she doesn’t want to deprive her mama of a little fun?
Who am I lying to — my kids or myself?
Maybe us grown-ups do Santa more for ourselves than the children. Because who doesn’t want to believe in magic? I know that I do as a middle-age woman who, at 42, is starting to face the sobering fact that many — if not, most — of her childhood dreams won’t come true, that some of those hopes and goals need to be laid to rest, or at least put on a shelf (next to the elf) for awhile.
The more that reality sets in, the more I want to believe that some miracles lie in wait, just around the corner, if only I’m good enough. And the more I want my children to believe the same: that their lives can and will be magical. If only they dream big and work hard, wonderful things will happen.
Even if Santa doesn’t exist, I know that magic does — all I have to do is look out my window at the flamboyan tree that my daughter planted during the lockdown.
In the early days of the pandemic, we spent a lot of time walking and riding around our neighborhood. We often ended up in a cul-de-sac, along which stood an enormous flamboyan tree, dropping its foot-long, seed-filled pods on the ground.
To child and adult alike, the impossibly large pods seem like something from prehistoric times, strange things that spark awe, wonder and excitement. When we picked them up, we shook them, rattling the seeds inside to make music. Then we broke them open and collected the seeds; my daughter rode home one day, her scooter filled with the contents of a pod.
Squatting in our garden — which is nothing more than a foot-wide strip of dirt that edges two sides of our patio — she pushed the seeds into the soil. No digging, no water.
And, yet, from nothing, they grew.
Not only did those seeds grow, in a year-and-a-half this tree that didn’t exist before has overtaken our house, towering above the roof, casting soft, undulating shadows on our bedroom walls at night.
From my desk, I’m looking at the flamboyan tree now. I’m thinking about the day I stood barefoot on the patio and hung ornaments on its branches — each globe a testimony to belief and hope. Each globe suspended from something that didn’t exist a short time ago, something that has taken root and grown from little more than a little girl’s hope, breath and thumbs. Each globe hanging from something I couldn’t have imagined.
Maybe that’s the message of Santa — not that your parents lie but that they want you to dream of a world and a life so wildly and extravagantly different from our current reality that its seems downright impossible.