My family celebrates Christmas. That might not seem so surprising, except for the fact that we’re Jewish.
Like so many families across America, we are a mix of cultures. My family is Jewish from Eastern Europe, my wife is a mix of Mexican and European, raised Catholic. The holidays are one of the few times a year when each of us gets to share in the traditions of our childhoods—hers with a tree, ornaments, and egg nog—ours with menorahs, dreidels, and latkes. Chocolate coins one weekend, candy canes the next. My three sons are a lucky few—they get presents for eight days of Hannuka and a bunch more from my in-laws on Christmas. Jackpot.
Along with the nog and over-indulgence on potato pancakes, there is one holiday tradition my family holds the most dear—participating in an annual food basket program through local Los Angeles Head Start centers. It’s through an amazing organization called One Voice, which provides a basket of fresh vegetables, turkey, canned goods, and pie to families in need—enough to last for a couple of weeks into the new year.
For every one of the 25 years I’ve known my wife (who helped found this group) we’ve packed the baskets and, on the Sunday before Christmas, traveled to a Head Start center for four hours to bring hope and holiday cheer to over 300 families that come through the center. For the first 20 years of this adventure, I was a “greeter,” which required superior embracing and schlepping skills, and little else.
As my middle widened and my own beard whitened, I became a more and more likely candidate to don the red suit. (For those 8 and under—spoiler alert—there’s more than one Santa.) Four years ago, I was drafted to the red and white, to take over the chair and lend my knees for happy kids to park and squirm.
Being St. Nick wasn’t something I really embraced at the start. Growing up in a Jewish home, I didn’t really get the whole Santa thing. Old fat guy with a white beard who sneaks into your house through the chimney, eats your cookies, and leaves you presents? With all that red he seemed a bit too similar to another, less jovial, Christian icon. Maybe there where horns under that red hat? Or a little pitchfork under that big jacket?
And having already bought into the “there was only enough oil for one night, but it lasted eight nights” nonsense—I couldn’t embrace the “he delivers presents to all the children around the world in one night” thing. When my Mom would take us shopping at a mall we’d always breeze by the line of kids waiting to see Santa—being placated with the “you get eight nights of presents” chestnut being pulled out of the Jewish parents handbook every year at this time. Santa was for other kids, not us.
But then I married the girl of my dreams. She came with a Santa loving, wreath buying, carol singing, stocking hanging family. I even got my own stocking. Then we had kids—and I got to experience the wonder and joy of Santa (and believing in him) as my children grew up. I saw their faces light up each year when the Rudolph (and Santa) claymation special would brighten our living room. The creepy old fat guy who liked to have kids on his lap suddenly became an icon of family get-togethers, good feelings, and smiling kids. I was beginning to like the guy.
So this year, with great trepidation (can a Jewish guy really find his inner Santa?), I agree to be Old St. Nick for the One Voice event. It’s a pretty serious transformation. Big red jacket with white trim goes over my red Roots t-shirt. Giant red drawstring pants that could fit a first-episode Biggest Loser contestant tuck into black plastic boots. The curly white beard pulls over the ears, followed by the curly white wig (don’t tell anyone, but Santa has a bit of a mullet). The glasses, white gloves, and big red hat go on last.
Ho Ho Ho time.
I strut to the tiny schoolroom chair, which for today is Santa’s throne.
One by one, the Head Start kids begin to arrive and peak around the corner as they enter—hoping to see me. When we make eye contact a moment of sheer magic happens. Their eyes get bigger than a Frisbee and a smile erupts, overtaking their little faces.
Time stands still. They can’t stop staring. Can’t breath. Can’t blink. For that shining, delicious moment I really am Santa.
Slowly they make their way to me. Each step is a drama. Then up on my lap and I can feel all their fear, trepidation, delight, and wonder. For less than half the time I speak English. “What’s your name? How old are you? What are you hoping for this Christmas?” For the rest I trot out my best high school Spanish and watch the amazement as Santa becomes Latino—“Feliz Navidad—Hace un buen año nuevo.”
The little ones drag along their older siblings and parents—and, for them, for that brief moment, they are a little kid again. The grins and giggles become contagious. This is the best job on the planet.
An hour into it, a tiny Latino boy dressed in a Spiderman sweatshirt and hand-me-down jeans approaches me. In what seems like slow-motion, he pulls out a yellow card made of construction paper from behind his back. On the front, it says two simple words: Dear Santa.
Now I’m in tears.
I’m not a white-haired guy in a red suit. I’m hope. I’m a big bright spot in a life of struggle. I’m the best thing of the season. He’s been thinking and dreaming of this moment for weeks.
Playing Santa isn’t something to fear. This isn’t an assignment. It’s an honor.
For a few hours one Sunday a year I get to be the most special person in the lives of a few hundred 4-year olds. Can anything be better than that?
You taught this Jewish kid the meaning of Christmas. I’ll be back next year.
—image via bwog.com
Stan Brooks is an Emmy-winning television producer, Chair of the California Film Commission and Professor at The American Film Institute with three sons; who founded a charitable foundation in 1995 to bring Little League baseball back to under-served communities in South Central Los Angeles. You can connect with Stan on Twitter or by email.