“Mommy, Santa isn’t real,” my eight-year-old sobbed. “I looked on Google.”
“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet,” I said. “There’s misinformation out there.” I typed Loch Ness Monster into her iPad search bar and flaunted the results. “See? Supporting evidence about Nessie’s existence either way.”
She wiped her tears. “Is Santa real?”
“Do you believe he’s real?” I asked.
“Then Santa is real. He lives in your heart.”
She looked confused, but thankfully the answer was enough — for this year at least. I felt guilty that I wasn’t more straightforward with my youngest child, but I couldn’t imagine telling her the truth and ending her magic, our magic.
When I was eight, Christmas morning was enchanting; that year, a Cabbage Patch Kid named Evette Penelope emerged from Santa’s presents — and no mere mortal could get that doll, only St. Nick. My parent’s faces beamed. Mom made banana pancakes, and Dad assembled our new toys while “Deck the Halls,” my namesake song (I’m Holly), played on his stereo. I had a grown-up vision of my future family underneath an evergreen strung with homemade popcorn and cranberry garland. I never imagined that I’d be part of an interfaith family — a Catholic mom raising three Jewish children.
A few years into our marriage, my husband and I decided that if we allowed our children to learn the foundations associated with one specific religion, there would be a concrete connection for them to draw on in times of need. We wanted them to experience a similar safe harbor to what we felt with our respective denominations. We thought that if we taught them about the intricacies of both religions, then they’d be bound to neither.
The difficult choice of which one — Catholicism or Judaism — turned our nights into court-worthy arguments. I recounted to my husband that reciting the Lord’s Prayer grounded me when I escaped from downtown Manhattan on 9/11, hoping he would understand the spiritual comfort Catholicism offered. But he spoke as passionately about his transformative trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. We needed a jury to bestow a verdict, but instead, we had two sets of biased parents. If only we could find a magic wand and — poof! — a fair way to choose just one religion for our babies.
Anxiety tortured me until the day I held my middle child, a newborn preemie, against my chest in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. This blessed angel was healthy, and disputing the matter of which religion connected him to God no longer seemed important.
As I savored the feeling of my baby boy’s soft skin against mine, I wondered if I could be okay giving my children the gift of Judaism. I wanted them to be Catholic because it was familiar to me, but was it the only path to God? I couldn’t imagine navigating life without the hope I extracted from the spiritual part of the doctrine, but bringing my robust Italian family together for holidays and reliving the joy I felt as a child during Christmas were the aspects that nagged at me most. If we provided our children with a moral foundation and direct line to God through Judaism, what could make me live with that decision?
The answer was Santa.
In my family, his visits were about so much more than gifts. When my younger sister questioned Santa’s viability in third grade, my dad stepped in with a red costume and a plan. In the early Christmas morning hours, he donned the ensemble, white beard and all, and placed gifts under the tree, thumping around loud enough to wake her so she’d catch a glimpse. It worked. She was a believer for two more years. Dad is 72 years old now, recovering from cancer, but he still talks about that proud parenting moment.
When my husband came to the NICU that night I said I’d make the sacrifice and raise our children in his faith if I could pass down my Christmas traditions. I knew it might upset my parents that I only celebrated the secular rituals with my kids, but it was my life, and I was sick of torturing myself and my husband.
“I can’t imagine living without Santa,” I said. My husband hugged me and agreed that my family’s Christmas celebrations were joyous customs that he, too, had grown to cherish. He professed that my act of self-sacrifice was mature, but he didn’t counter-offer. I didn’t expect him to. I was on board anyway, and he welcomed this structure as a solid choice for our children. So, off they went to Hebrew School, but in December, they were the only kids in that school who got visits from Santa.
When they learned about Old Testament stories, I was happy because I related to the familiar teachings, the foundation for Christianity. I’ve been overwhelmed with joy at every milestone mitzvah as much as any Jewish mother. Maybe even more.
It’s the idea of losing Santa that breaks me. I’m not ready. Sure, I’ve overcompensated by erecting a 12-foot Christmas tree that flaunts my unique ornament collection, including a London bus and hand-painted seashells depicting some of the most exciting places we’ve lived or visited. Over the years, the kids and I have made Christmas decorations, too, as I did with my mom. It’s one way my kids can relate to my childhood. I tell them about the stories behind each decoration my mother has given me as we lay it on the mantle.
But, in the end, Christmas is really all about Santa’s charm, the thrill, the comfort. My kids look forward to leaving cookies and milk and eagerly await Santa’s Christmas morning gift pageant. I revel in the cloud of warmth that descends on our family as they open gifts. The kids don’t bicker as they usually do, the fireplace roars, and tender memories from my childhood inhabit my heart.
Reserved for fried potato latkes, menorah lighting parties, and practical gifts in our house, Hanukkah is important too. Our homemade menorah museum is always displayed. The Hanukkah story also allows us to discuss with our children the power of resilience and light in times of darkness. It provides them with a strong spiritual ritual.
But on Christmas morning, my husband is Santa’s most fantastic elf as he assembles the toys, eyes gleaming, and I flip the pancakes.
“Mommy, let’s catch Santa on camera!” my daughter shouted after the Googling incident.
“He’s magical. You can’t see him on camera, hon.” I’m a quick thinker.
So how do I handle that my youngest has signaled Santa will stop visiting us soon? Her doubt causes me to reconsider the religious choice that I made 13 years ago. Many things do along the way. The ebb and flow will never be totally in balance. If Santa — the link that keeps Christmas alive in my Jewish children’s lives — dissolves, what will remain of my legacy?
But then I examine the relationships I have with each of my three kids. I love that they see our family as a blended unit, not as separate entities. They’ve learned families don’t need to be the same to love each other. I’ve been exposed to Judaism — and antisemitism — from the inside, in a way I could never have seen if I wasn’t part of the Jewish community.
I trust that next year, once Santa is gone for good, the love my children feel when they think back to his visits will provide memories that they’ll want to pass down to their kin, reminding all of us that I made the right choice. But maybe my dad will lend my husband the red costume, and Santa will live on just a little longer — or better yet, he’ll wear it himself.
Holly Rizzuto Palker is working on the book “Raising Pizza Bagels: One Interfaith Family’s Recipe for Success”