On this first night of the Festival of Lights, I’m so happy to welcome Rachel Wagner, described by yentas everywhere as a “nice Jewish girl,” to share the true meaning of the holidays.
Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, I was far from the only Jewish child in my class. We were so well-represented that by third grade, all of our Christian friends had a rudimentary knowledge of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At one point, the local Catholic school even staged its own seder. Yet all the religious sensitivity that northern Westchester had to offer couldn’t change what was in my heart: I was head-over-heels in love with Christmas.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy observing the Jewish holidays, but the endless stories of persecution and suffering just couldn’t compete against a team of magical reindeer and a jolly grandfather figure who doled out presents instead of plagues. What was a small, stark menorah next to a full-bodied evergreen festooned with ornaments and twinkling lights? Christian kids got to festoon! And while Christmas extolled the joys of giving and receiving, Hanukkah really went after every child’s favorite activity: rationing.
Fortunately, I had adults on my side who were kind enough to indulge me in my love of all things yuletide—especially my love of Santa Claus. To me, Santa had all the trappings of a minor celebrity. He was accessible yet elusive, kind yet mysterious, he was everywhere and nowhere all at once. But I never for an instant doubted he was real. My parents took pity. They knew that Larry the Latke—the sad, oil-soaked, anthropomorphized pancake dreamed up in desperation by the local Jewish community center—couldn’t possibly hold a candle to Saint Nick. One Christmas morning, my mom and dad so thoughtfully left me presents “from Santa” under the CD rack in our den. I bought the ruse hook, line and sinker. Even my babysitter would find gifts for me under the Christmas tree in her house.
“Santa knows you don’t have a tree, Rachel,” she’d say, “so he left your gifts under my tree so I could give them to you instead.”
I then tore off and kept the little sticker on the wrapping paper that said “To: Rachel, From: Santa,” and proudly showed it off to my best friend, claiming I had Santa’s autograph. She never seemed that impressed, but I think it’s because, as an actual Christian, she was used to that kind of thing.
Of course, I eventually learned the truth about Santa and I came to spend December 25th in the most time-honored of Jewish traditions: noshing endlessly on the couch while watching reruns of A Christmas Story on TBS. But now, that’s exactly how I imagine Santa would kick back on December 26th with his secret tenth reindeer, Schlepper.