For my brother and me, Santa was mortal. In fact, he was many a mortal.
One of the pungent realities of being raised Jewish is that you are inclined towards an arms-length relationship with Santa Claus. Add that to growing up in the tenements of New York, and the likelihood of having a robust relationship with the man in red is close to nil. No chimneys, no Christmas tree. The thought of Santa and eight tiny reindeer crowded and cursing on a rickety fire escape, prying loose the bars on the windows to slip inside and deliver gifts, was pretty much a non-starter, even to a five-year old.
Not that we weren’t greedy. We celebrated Hanukkah as well as Christmas, or the gifting of Christmas; it was one of the few advantages I sensed being Jewish. Don’t mistake, though- we were on the ‘Christmas Optional’ plan. Christmas for us wasn’t the birth of Christ, it was the magical multiplication of gifts at the foot of our bed that served as a quiet measure of how good the year had been financially for struggling parents.
For me, Santa was always a man in a red suit, hawking toys on television or breathing an everything bagel into my face when I sat on his lap at Macy’s. He stood on every street corner, ersatz and composed, ringing a bell for those less fortunate. He was mortal. In fact, Santa was many a mortal, a myriad of men who seemed to appear and multiply as we got closer to Christmas morning. Santa wasn’t a symbol; he was an exercise in cloning for my brother and me.
Santa was too real, too present, simply too many to take on much value as a myth for us. We always knew where the gifts came from; in the same way we always knew the trajectory of where they were going. Our gifts, such as they were, seemed to run out of ‘arc’ about mid-summer. They never seemed to last the entire year for us. It was rare to find us playing with a Christmas toy in September. Because we were so young, all of our gifts were toys; we never got useless gifts like socks or matching sweaters. Those were restricted to Hanukkah, and well-meaning but unimaginative relatives.
Still, my brother and I went along with the ruse. We never shared our knowledge with our Christians friends, never spoiled their illusions about St. Nick, never cast a shred of doubt on the viability of improbable old Santa.
We followed their big red fellow on the radio as he raced across the globe. The news announcer breathlessly encouraged us to go to sleep because ‘He’ was very close to North America. We didn’t doubt that NORAD had spotted ‘something’ on its radar. My brother and I thought it might be a UFO, and not Santa, because we knew Santa was standing on the street corner down on the Concourse- where we had passed him earlier that evening.
I’m not sure we lost out on anything by not holding Santa Claus to real or mythical standards. Our gift pile wasn’t much different than our Christian friends, despite the inconvenience of our Jewish faith. In fact, thanks to double-dipping, we were awash with gifts between Hanukah and Christmas. We made up in bounty what we were deprived of in imagination.
And after all, to a seven-year old, it’s all about the gifts. Wasn’t that the meaning of Christmas?
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