Santa Ain’t No Bigot?

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I have to admit, I never played it out this far…

But, Wednesday night, I found myself helping my daughter put out cookies and milk for Santa. Problem is…we’re Jewish.

Here’s how it went down.

I was raised in a household that was one part free-loving hippie, one part Jewish, one part academic and one part art rebel. My wife was raised Jewish, but celebrated Christmas, out of respect for her Roman Catholic dad…and her chance to double down on presents.

Today, as parents, we are both spiritual people and value many of the common teachings of many faiths on compassion and oneness, and we’d consider ourselves Jewish, but we’re not overtly “religious” by any means.

And, here’s where it gets kind of tricky…and where I’d love the benefit of your input.

At 7 years old, my daughter’s friends who celebrate Christmas all believe in Santa. And, this time of year, my daughter has seen all of the television specials about Santa’s gift giving process and discussed the details, logistics and elven procedures at length with her friends.

Probably because Santa has become such a large part of Americana, whenever the legend is told, it’s never uttered, “Santa only gives gifts to kids who’s religion centers around Christ.” It’s always that Santa keeps a list of kids, every kid in the world and gives gifts to all. As far as I can tell, nowhere does the mythology have Santa discriminating against kids of other faiths, the deciding factor is always naughty or nice.

Now, my daughter is a good kid, in fact her and her friends all made hope chests filled with gifts to give to kids living in transitional shelters for the holidays. So, when my daughter, who knows she is Jewish, but also celebrates Christmas in “honor” of her grampa and has many friends who believe devoutly in Santa and knows Santa’s rules asks if she can leave cookies and milk out for Santa, I am stumped.

My first instinct is to say, “no, of course not. We don’t celebrate Christmas.”

But then, I realize, in a way we do. Plus, according to popular belief, Santa is about “all” kids, he doesn’t ride around in his sleigh skipping the houses of kids of faiths he doesn’t vibe with. And, claiming he did would bring up a whole host of discrimination issues I really didn’t want to get into.

So, my next instinct is to just bust the whole Santa myth…

But that means crushing a cherished fable and busting it not only for my daughter, but for her friends, too, who still believe in Santa with every fiber of their being. Not so sure my little one could keep it to herself and, even if she could, it would cause some unease between her and her friends (I still remember those conversations). Don’t want to go down that road quite yet.

So, there I was, Christmas eve, lighting the candles on our Menorah, giving gifts for Chanukah…then setting out milk and cookies with my wife and daughter for Santa.

And, I have to tell you, while I love to celebrate with my family. And, I love to give gifts…

This is seriously confusing.

So, what do you guys think? Beyond the whole commercialization of the holidays stuff. I know that’s a whole different conversation.

With so many mixed families and blurred traditions, have you encountered similar issues? Do you know people who have? How would navigate these waters?

Would love to know your thoughts.

Let’s discuss…

PS – Whatever your faith or beliefs, please accept my wishes for a wonderful, loving, peaceful, compassionate, successful holiday season and year ahead.

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27 responses

27 responses to “Santa Ain’t No Bigot?”

  1. Our family has struggled for years with how to celebrate Christmas. Not because we are mixed religiously, but because we have no religion. We enjoy a lot of the pre-Christian traditions on which Christmas was stolen–er… built. There is poetry and meaning in the regularly-spaced out holidays of the old ways.

    So we don’t go in for the Christian mythologizing or the commercialism… and yet, we love Christmas! We’ve decided that we’re just going to have come up with our own traditions. Explaining things to my granddaughter will be interesting.

  2. Susan Greene says:

    My husband is Catholic. I am Jewish. We enjoy celebrating the traditions of both Hanukkah and Christmas, as well as other religion-based holidays.

    We have a Christmas tree with a big Jewish star on top. We also have a Menorah.

    Our kids have grown up believing in Santa (well, the youngest, age 10, still believes as far as I know). It’s been great fun. I think we as parents have enjoyed the myth as much as have our children.

    Why not allow your family to enjoy the best of both worlds, so long as you also teach them the values of religion like being good to others, etc.

  3. Brian Holiman says:

    That’s a fine mess you have, but a good mess none the less.

    I grew up in a Christian family that did not celebrate Christmas for a variety of reasons but the most compelling one was that the symbols of Christmas, the tree, Santa, etc had nothing to do with the Christmas story itself. No mention of the Christ child, or the reason for His coming.

    So our family was faced with the horrible question each year, “what did Santa bring you for Christmas?” from all of our school friends. Talk about awkward. In no way did we want to appear “wierd” for not believing in Christmas. That was too much. But we were “weird” in the eyes of our friends. Our religion caused us to feel strange and out of place.

    For years we went through this and then one day our parents decided to try it out. That was a great year! Presents all around and no weirdness the next day! Yeah!

    Since then, I have done my best to reconcile my understanding of the Christmas story with the commercial, very secular tradition Christmas has become. It is difficult from my Christian perspective to really teach my child that Santa is pretend while at the same time teaching her that the Christ child is real.

    Then another thing happened this year. I’ve traveled some and suddenly realized most of the world does not have our western mindset about this holiday and therefore Santa going all over the world is truly a western idea. All the Hindus, Buddhist, Jews, Muslims, etc have no concept of why we in the western world celebrate Christmas in the first place. It is fundamentally a Christan holiday.

    So, in our household, we celebrate Christmas this way, the tree is the symbol of eternal life that Christ came to offer us, the gifts to one another symbolize the free gift of salvation and the decorations are symbolic of the joyous response the first two items should invoke in us.

    My little girl is 6, she is adopted from Buddhist Thailand and had no concept of Christmas her first year with us. Yesterday, it was all about the presents and I am ok with the giving, I love to see her face, but more important, is the knowledge I am trying to impart to her about the true meaning of Christmas. That in our tradition, Christ came to save the world from their sins.

    If I were to offer advice, it would be this; its ok to pretend about Santa, our little one understands this, but its more important for your children to understand your religion’s traditions and to embrace them without ostracizing the outside world like we did when I was a kid. Balance is possible even with the heavy commercialization of Christmas

    A families heritage is of vastly more importance than a commercial holiday.

    Have a blessed holiday!

  4. This was the first year that many faiths collided in my holiday landscape.

    I celebrated Yule/Solstice with my yogi friends on the beach. Burned our list of things we wanted to give up on the yule log and poured them into the sunrise ocean waves of the Solstice day.

    Hanukkah with the Jewish family/friends of the kids I sit. We lit the Menorah, had potato pancakes, and listened to some recorded songs from the temple.

    Christmas to round out the winter holiday and props to St Nicolas (santa) Nobody I was with is Christian but it seemed that all wanted to mark the day since it reminded them of an older family member and their youth.

    And of course my Birthday that was on the 25th so we sang and had chocolate.

    Every year I say that the winter months are my favorite because it is the one time of year that everyone seems to be trying to live in their highest ideal. I feel that everyone is aware that all of the faiths intertwine in December and it is a reminder that indeed all of our lives do to.

    Whatever the reason for your particular celebration, I wish you peace and joy and love.

    The greatest of these is Love.

  5. riva says:

    I think you did the right thing. Someday she’s going to find out the truth about Santa. Every kid does.
    I think more harm is done to kids, in denying them the delights of childhood, than in forcing them to adhere to one particular way vs. another.
    How beautiful to be able to light the menora AND set out cookies for Santa Claus.
    I grew up in a Jewish household where all non-Jewish traditions were forbidden and judged. Just made me want a Christmas tree even more.

  6. Dan and Evie says:

    Hello friends,

    We consider ourselves “open-minded” Christians with a deep respect for Christianity’s Jewish roots and are struggling for the first time with what kind of traditions we will build for our family now that we have a daughter, mostly because we don’t buy into the commercialization aspect that you mentioned above. So good luck with finding your own way; it’s good to read suggestions from others as well and I know it will certainly only get more confusing as our daughter gets older (comments from unsuspecting strangers as well as the whole “other kids” factor).

    That said, our vote is for an “easy letdown” debunking of the Santa myth, being spiritual people ourselves as well. It would seem that the longer you allow your daughter to believe in a literal Santa, the harder the fall when she finds out (and better her find out from you then anywhere else). You wouldn’t want to hinder her ability to trust her parents, trust adults (in general), or her faith in the unseen, especially if you hope to foster a genuine faith of some sort in her.

    If your biggest concern is her telling other people, we suggest that you frame “Santa” as some sort of game, or like my family did, explained that Santa is more of a beloved “idea” and really is the collective goodwill of mankind (or however you would attempt to frame the abstract for a 7 year old…confusing I’m sure.)

    You also might be surprised at your daughter’s ability to “keep the Santa secret.” Dan found out when he was three, and his parents convinced him that it would hurt other kids feelings to find out about Santa. As far as he can remember, he never told anyone (and he isn’t particularly good at keeping secrets – wink).

  7. Bill Costello says:

    I think your approach and actions are well-placed. The goal for me as children age is to transfer belief in Santa to belief in love and its expression through gift-giving, while not succumbing to the crass commercialism that fosters so many base things. Real challenge. Keeps life interesting.

  8. Kelly says:

    Jonathan,

    Happy Hanukkah!

    I think the season is about giving whatever your faith, and the fact that she wanted to give a little something to that tired old traveller as he passed your home seems very sweet. Allowing her to do that was a wonderful lesson in generosity and in accepting our multicultural world. She’ll thank you for it later.

    So did Santa bring a little something to her? 🙂

    Regards,

    Kelly

  9. deepikaur says:

    My family isn’t Christian. Nor do we celebrate Christmas. But when I was younger, I did believe in Santa. Well, up until I was about five, when my cousin spoiled it, but that’s beside the point. She’s too young to be caught in the mess of discrimination issues. Let her be, and as she grows, she’ll begin to understand that Santa isn’t real.
    The character is a part of every child’s youth, and the belief is kinda essential (in my opinion) to a kid’s happy childhood.
    She’ll come to realize the truth sooner or later, so don’t stress over it. 🙂

    Happy Holidays to you and your family!

  10. I enjoy traditions and I respect keeping faith, whatever it may be. I also fully support and encourage making your own traditions and faith-keepers that work for your family.

    I think that by blending elements of various beliefs, you’re teaching her something really great: Take what’s good out of anything, even if it wasn’t previously something you cleaved to.

    Then build something your own – only better 🙂

  11. Robin Capper says:

    There is no need to “bust the whole Santa myth” if you just explain that, like Santa, the whole “happy holiday” season is built around a collection of myths. Mom & Dad choose theirs, Granddad chose his, She can choose which, if any, she wants to believe.

  12. Justin says:

    One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t get political or religious with children. Even if a child is a different religion than Christianity but wants to participate in Christian rituals, that’s fine if it makes them happy. It’s not about belief in Christ, it’s just about gifts and having fun.

  13. Ivy says:

    I vote for more celebration, more inclusion, more love, giving, and sharing. I vote for more more imagination, more magic, and more childhood for children.

    I say, go nuts and next year include a few MORE holidays!

  14. chas says:

    i’m with ivy…more more more! inclusion to the max! that’s what this new world is all about. if you are inspired by the idea of including more holidays in your life, pop over to dan furst’s site to see an amazingly complete list of religious and spiritual festivals from all over the globe.

    as far as santa goes, of all the ways i ever felt betrayed by my parents, santa doesn’t even make the list. and if we had stopped celebrating once i knew santa was a sham? now that would have been a betrayal of trust.

    christmas is for kids…after all, there is no christmas controversy among them!

  15. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Everyone – thanks so much for all of your wonderful input. As always, I’m blown away by the creativity and openness of our community here.

    It really does seem like, regardless of tradition or religion, there’s just something about this time of year that serves as a reminder to pause, to give and to reconnect with those around us.

    And, maybe to be thankful that we even have the chance, along with an “age appropriate” recognition that so many others do not.

    Perhaps the format or convention that opportunity takes is probably less important than a commitment to embrace the opportunity itself, however expressed.

    I wonder, though, whether the opportunity to explore oneness get a bit lost sometimes, the notion that we are part of something bigger than us, intimately connected with those both less and more fortunate, that they are, in fact us, and we are them.

    Not everyone believes this to true, I get that. But for me, it’s becoming increasingly central to how think and live and it’s something I’d like to try emphasizing a bit more in the coming months and years with my daughter.

    PS – Yup, apparently Santa liked his milk and cookies and my daughter made the nice list.

  16. chas says:

    @jonathan kids are such a self organizing lot, that they learn about the oneness thing they will integrate it into the rest of their lives. and one of the most archetypal xmas images is the salvation almy dude with the bell at the entrance to the grocery store…it’s pretty easy to combine a visit to santa with a drop off at the food bank…

  17. Peter Blue says:

    Hello Jonathan!

    Just relax and celebrate whatever comes along.
    We have reached a time where religions have to face that they are not absolute anymore.
    (Although they want to ignore this insight)

    The whole christmas has it’s basic origin in celebrating the return of the light, as the 21st of Dez. is the longest night.
    One can find this in all old cultures of the northern hemisphere, long before christ.
    When I go somewhere and people pray in their religion, I just join as long as it is a peaceful prayer.
    I hope Santa has brought you a huge pile of wonderfully wrapped gifts 😉

    Your friend;

    Peter

  18. Mark Silver says:

    I still remember the look on the face of my best friend Christian (that’s his name) when I was.. I dunno, very young.. and I said to him: “Of course Santa’s not real.” Being Jewish myself, I just wasn’t brought up with the idea that Santa was anything more than a story, and I had no idea he or anyone else believe Santa was real.

    Crushed. He was crushed. Miserable. Oops.

    I think you did the right thing. There’s plenty of time, as she grows up and understands more, to explain the complexities and joys of an interfaith world, while still holding onto your own tradition.

    Childhood stories and myths naturally fall away at some point- no need to push the river. I’m glad you opted for the mythology and specialness.

    Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, happy kwanzaa, solstice, festivus and a belated Eid Mubarak to everyone.

    And, above all, peace.

  19. Eric Deeter says:

    Johnathan,
    Happy Hannukah.. I grew up in a Christian home believing in Santa Claus. But when I had kids I told them from the start that Santa was just make-believe. My wife and I did this because it was important to us to pass on our faith to our children. I didn’t want to risk that they would say, “You lied to me about Santa being real, maybe what you told me about Jesus isn’t real either.” My son and his wife have followed suit and my grandkids know the story of Santa is a fable.
    But in the grand scheme of things I don’t think the Santa myth is going to cause any faith to crumble. It’s marketing genius that Santa doesn’t discriminate according to religion. Christmas is actually now a secular holiday. Christians will continue to complain that the “true meaning” should be restored, but I think the retail marketplace has firmly captured Christmas as its own. So keep setting out the cookies and milk. And let’s all be respectful of people who think differently than we do.
    Blessings for the new year.

  20. DJ Francis says:

    I’ve heard this argument a lot in Christian circles – except instead of Santa, it’s Christ they’re talking about.

    Some folks want to believe that Christ’s love is exclusionary. They quote Leviticus and make excuses about why some folks are more deserving than others. To me, that’s what I’m hearing from the side of you that says “no way” to Santa (I know it doesn’t totally match, but go with me for a second).

    On the other hand, there are folks who say, “Wait a minute. Jesus dined with tax-collectors and prostitutes. This was a man of the people preaching love and understanding.” Maybe this is the side of you thinking that it’s no big deal to have a menorah next to Santa’s cookies.

    I think the bigger issue is how open you are to things. We likely both know that your child’s Judism will not be swayed by a plate of cookies and some milk. Of course, neither will it be swayed if you chose to *not* include the cookies to instead focus on your reason for the season.

    What may be more important is that you’re open to the possibility of sharing these faiths and you’re wrestling with what they all mean. It’s scary when faith is full of absolutes because the world simply doesn’t work that way (in my opinion). So props to you for questioning it, keeping an open mind, and doing whatever it is you think fits best with your moral compass. I think that’s your assurance that you’re doing the right thing.

  21. Lisa Firke says:

    Hey, Jonathan. I think you did just great by your daughter. Santa can be a chance to teach about generosity and goodness and it sounds like that’s what you did.

    We’re not formally religious, but Santa still comes to our house. When I was growing up, and crushed when the Santa myth was dispelled by a classmate, my parents said something very sweet – that Santa was a source of giving that a child doesn’t have to feel beholden to.

    We’ve extended that idea so that now that our kids are nearly grown-up, everyone in the family is Santa and each year we give one another the thrill of being a secret benefactor and the pleasure of receiving without strings attached.

  22. vannice says:

    I don’t think there is any correct answer but it sounds like you are asking all the right questions. You know your circumstances and child better than anyone so I just offer my congratulations of being a thoughtful and caring parent.

  23. Gina says:

    I think you did just fine — Santa really isn’t the Christian part of Christmas anyway. The Santa we know is more of a Victorian construct. We have the Victorians to thank for a lot of the pomp and circumstance around Christmas today — for earlier generations of Christians the emphasis was more on the nativity and on going to church services (Christ’s Mass).

    Now if she wanted to put up a nativity or do an advent calendar you’d need to worry. 😉

    I think it’s important to let children have an imagination-filled childhood, and I think Santa helps to fill that role for a while. The harm is not letting Santa get too commercial.But what is the harm in a child wanting to set out cookies? This tradition will pass from her life far too quickly.

  24. I just had to chime in again to say that the D&D nerd in me always wanted to make Santa into a level 20 wizard. He would’ve been a helluva a NPC.

  25. Amy says:

    I’m an interfaith minister who was raised in a Christian family, but I also had a Jewish grandfather (sort of the opposite of your daughter!). Considering my background, I was surprised a few days ago when my extended family gathered to celebrate Christmas and someone’s step-daughter was wearing a Star of David necklace. I asked her if she celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, yep – she celebrates them all. On Christmas they lit their Menorah and opened presents from Santa. (On Christmas I watched a documentary on Hanukkah.)

    I’ve often wondered what Jewish families do with regard to Santa. I know several grown Jews who were deeply saddened as children because Santa never came to their house. I also know several Christian adults who were traumatized when they learned Santa “wasn’t real.” Hopes and dreams shattered – in both scenarios.

    There are no easy answers, but as our communities and religions continue to mingle and collide, we’ll have to think creatively about how we raise our children. It’s such an exciting opportunity for cultivating interconnectedness. Thanks to everyone for such though provoking and honest responses to Jonathan’s question.

    Shalom – Salaam – Om Shanti – Peace and Happy New Year

  26. nora says:

    Our family has mixed religious backgrounds, but until this year we’ve never celebrated “santa”. We moved this year to a larger city and our 6 year old really got into the Santa thing at school. He was positive that Santa would come and leave him gifts, wrote letters to Santa and vehemently argued with his older brother who tried to debunk the Santa idea. So we decided to go along with it. It seemed somehow wrong to crush his enthusiasm and belief. And who doesn’t want extra presents from someone who only cares whether or not you’re good or bad.

  27. Ida says:

    Hi,

    religious sincretism has always been around. Christianity at birth was an amalgam of other religions, as it is now.

    For the children the social aspect is important, not the religious. Go for it.

    I am Hungarian, and when I was child, nothing religious was welcome. My parents were agnostic, atheist, and anticlerical, though both were raised in christian faith. They refused it on the base of their personal experiences.

    However, Santa Claus (who was called in those times “Daddy Winter” visited me – on december 6, nameday of Saint Nicolas. I put my clean shoes in the window at bedtime, and found them full of candies in the morning.

    We celebrated Christmas, had big beautiful trees, with a red star on top.

    Now I live in Chile, and the fact that Christmas is celebrated at the beginning of the summer, produces a severe cognitive dissonance in me, and in many other immigrants from the Northern Hemisphere.

    The native revivalists celebrate the birth of the light in june.

    So don’t worry, take it easy, and have a happy new year!