“But Mom, we can’t celebrate Hanukkah—because then Santa won’t come, right?”
This was the question from my clearly worried 7-year old last December as we prepared to celebrate our first Hanukkah. And just like that, all of the confusing family issues surrounding my conversion to Judaism were distilled into one simple, innocent wondering. In that moment, standing there in the kitchen with my youngest son, there was really only one answer: “No, sweetie… Santa loves Hanukkah!”
I tell this story in answer to a question I’m getting a lot recently, since I converted to Judaism this past spring and am committed to raising my children as Jews: “Just how does your family celebrate the holidays now?”
As with most things in life that really matter, a full and honest answer is not a simple one. My husband isn’t Jewish, and doesn’t plan to become Jewish, but he is supportive—and for the last almost two years, our boys and I have been moving into Judaism in meaningful, deliberate ways. We light Shabbat candles on Friday night, regularly attend synagogue, and celebrate holidays with friends. I converted this past April. As of this fall, the kids are learning Hebrew and attending religious school on Sunday mornings.
They increasingly think of themselves as Jewish. At the beginning of this school year, my 6th grader came home from youth group and exclaimed, “Mom, I’m not the only Jewish kid at school!” And the other day when I caught him watching YouTube videos instead of cleaning his room, I had a hard time feigning anger; he was watching “Candlelight,” the Maccabeats’s Hanukkah song, on my laptop.
Their growing sense of Jewish identity and at-home-ness in Judaism gives me a deep sense of joy, and a fair amount of relief. I am glad to know that they will grow up with a sense of belonging, even though they were 7 and 9 before we found our permanent religious home. (Read my previous essay, “Choosing My Religion,” for more on the importance of having a religious home.)
But now, we find ourselves faced with a choosing-Judaism holiday dilemma: What do we do with Santa?
Santa and other Christmas-related accessories like the tree and stockings never had religious significance for us, because we’ve never, as a family, identified as Christian. It was all more about family and childhood memories; my husband and I grew up with those traditions, and handing down traditions is a natural thing to do.
In hindsight, it would have been a great idea to tell the kids the “truth” about Santa earlier this year—maybe this past summer, if I’d had the idea then… but I didn’t, and now it’s December. The kids got letters from “Santa” in the mail the other day. I don’t know which children’s magazine or toy company sent them, and it doesn’t really matter—the only thing I know for sure is that those letters made my kids’ eyes light up with the magic of Santa and prancing reindeer. If I dispelled the Santa myth now, it would be a cruel crushing of childhood spirit.
Meanwhile, we have a new menorah for Hanukkah this year, adding to the one the boys and I handmade from Sculpey clay last year. We’re excited about new latke recipes, and we have plans to attend a Hanukkah party. Santa feels increasingly out of place! And yet, it’s looking like he’ll be making one last visit to our house this year.
And with that, we come to the heart of the matter. The last thing in the world I want to do is have the kids associate our move into Judaism with some kind of loss. Judaism can’t be the reason that Santa doesn’t come to our house anymore. Our becoming Jewish should only be associated with positive gains: newfound community, meaningful holiday traditions, and the gift of our lives being grounded in and guided by Torah.
If the kids still believe in Santa next summer, I’ll tell them then. That way, it won’t be because of Hanukkah or Judaism; it’ll be because they are of the age when they can understand such things. Also, I imagine it’d save my middle schooler from ridicule that’s sure to come if he continues to “believe.”
But for this year? Well, we don’t have a chimney, so Santa will have to come in through the front door. This gives him an opportunity to kiss the mezuzah as he enters. Oh, and he’s changed his flight trajectory this year—it turns out he can’t get here until the last evening of Hanukkah. That’s okay; we’ll still leave him a plate of cookies. And latkes! I hear he’s a big fan of latkes….