“I was just outside walking Brandy and I heard sleigh bells overhead,” said my father, his voice almost thundering in excitement.
I was downstairs in our finished basement playing on the rust-colored shag carpeting, and it was getting late. I looked up at him – he was big; I always looked up at him – and as I listened carefully to the words he was saying to me, I felt my face grow very pale.
“I have to go to sleep! I have to go to sleep!”
I threw my toy down and I jumped up and I ran passed him and up the stairs and all the way up to my room, the one with the mirror framed in a yellow plastic, the one that had a rainbow painted across my walls. I threw myself into my bed and pulled the covers over the tippy top of my head.
“If I’m not asleep, Santa won’t come,” I stated reasonably, though my face was burrowed underneath my comforter and my voice probably sounded muffled.
My father turned off my bedroom light and I could hear my mother say, “Good night, sweet dreams, I love you,” which is what she said to me every single night of my childhood and my adolescence before I went to sleep.
It was hot under those covers, but I wouldn’t allow myself to come up for any cooling air. I stayed buried, listening hard for the same bells that my father just heard jingling in the distance, but I couldn’t hear anything, not even the rushing of the wind. I decided instantly that I needed to stop trying to hear what was surely out there and to send myself off into dreamland. And if I had to, I would bang my head against the wall to achieve it.
Making myself comatose turned out not to be necessary. I eventually fell asleep on my own and I awoke the next morning to a stocking with my name written on it in blue glitter that was crammed with presents. There were also a bunch of gifts for me stacked neatly next to the fireplace. I tried to remember the moment of actually falling asleep but I couldn’t. Another year when I didn’t get to see Mr. Claus himself, but it didn’t matter; he had come.
On that happy morning I was four years old.
I was also Jewish.
Yes, I’m a Jewish girl who was raised believing in Santa Claus. We never had a tree – not then – but we always had stockings and we believed – oh, how we believed! – that a grey-bearded gentleman dressed in red velvet who rode reindeer for efficiency toted our presents to our home.
We believed in a lot of things back then. The Easter Bunny would show up too and he left actual evidence of his existence. There was this fancy china egg that sat somewhere in our den as a piece of breakable décor, but on Easter morning it would somehow be filled to the brim with jellybeans! We got baskets stuffed with candy too. And while I don’t know when the gooey Cadbury Egg was officially invented, I believe that the day should be heralded as When Something Really Significant Happened and the anniversary should be celebrated. Perhaps mail service should be cancelled on that date to show our fully warranted respect for the candy goo that looks like an egg yolk.
I’m not sure why our family celebrated Christmas when it wasn’t our official holiday, but we did, always. I don’t think we had a special Christmas dinner or anything like that, but we certainly enjoyed the stockings and we ate pancakes on Christmas morning and I remember gigantic mugs filled with hot cocoa and extra marshmallows that I’d try to eat before they dissolved. I remember the feeling of warmth and that we stayed in pajamas all day long and that my sister and I would eventually build a fort out of the pillows from the couch and we’d stay in that fort until the evening.
I can’t remember when I stopped believing in Santa. I don’t remember most things from that time in my life. My sister can nail with absolute precision the moment she discovered the truth, and I think it had something to do with finding a stack of wrapped gifts in the bottom of my mother’s closet when she was playing with her shoes one day. She also might have come across my father cursing wildly one Christmas Eve as he attempted to assemble Barbie’s Dream House, but thinking back now, he was probably less annoyed by the complicated instructions than he was that he – a college professor – had just purchased a fucking Barbie Dream House.
I don’t recall much about the Barbie house, but I loved her car – it was a convertible – and I liked putting her shoes on. Even back then I would completely ignore the flats or the boots she could wear and instead I’d push her feet into very high heels and I’d get frustrated that her feet seemed like they were made from a very tough plastic that was never quite malleable enough for me to shove her shoes on fully. One of them would always kind of dangle off of her, ruining the look I was going for. That’s where my classically feminine response to Barbie ended though. While my sister kept Barbie and all of her accessories neatly locked in an organized pink case and she would take the items out one at a time and do things like carefully brush the doll’s long hair, I would take a blue ballpoint pen and draw heavy and permanent eyeliner on the doll and then I’d take scissors to her head just to see how she’d look with a buzz cut and I’d sometimes stick her upside down into a cup of apple juice.
I don’t know why I did those things, but I was never content with just dressing and accessorizing her. I wanted to change her. And though a few of her haircuts came out looking pretty unfortunate, I had fun doing things my own way.
After my parents divorced, we continued to have stockings at both houses. Yes, I saw it as an opportunity to get double the presents, but I can’t deny how much I missed the days when we were able to show both of our parents the impressive fort we’d constructed at the same exact time because they still then occupied the same living room. Still, late December always felt then like a very happy time.
When I reached middle school, my mother married a man who was not Jewish and all of a sudden we really started to celebrate Christmas. We never went to church of anything, but we did get a tree. And me? I may not have been able to stand my new stepfather – he was clearly not good enough for my mother – but the tree part thrilled me. I loved that we suddenly had things in boxes in the basement that were labeled “Ornaments” and that I learned there was such a thing that existed called a tree skirt.
All of the ornaments we bought for the tree were bears. There were bears that were waltzing and bears that were hugging and bears that were dressed as football players and bears that held red and white candy canes and bears that gripped square-shaped boxes that had big gold bows on top. There was nothing religious about the tree or how we adorned it. We didn’t even think to do something like top it with a menorah or with a glowing Jewish Star because it wasn’t about the merging of two holidays. Those days and that tree were just about being happy and festive.
There was a learning curve to decorating a tree. You’ve got to hit the back branches too; otherwise you end up with only a partially-decorated tree. We learned quickly that tinsel can end up being a very good idea in theory but a poor one in practice. It ended up everywhere. It got all over the floor. I’d look down at my feet later in the night and see silver strands of it weaved through my toes. I couldn’t seem to separate it properly and it hung on the branches in odd clumps. And then there were the lights, which were harder to string than I’d expected. My former stepfather liked the big bulb-y lights, but I found them ugly and kind of tacky. I wanted the little lights –I thought they were way more delicate – but I was overruled. Still, though he ended up with the lights that he wanted, he put them around the tree with absolutely no skill whatsoever. Once I got to high school, I’d ask my friend Greg to come over to help us put the lights on the tree and he did it perfectly.
When my father walked into our house to pick me up for the weekend, he gazed directly at that tree and appeared furious. We were Jewish! How could our living room contain a Christmas tree? It struck me, even then, as an odd thing to get mad at when he had clearly pulled the Santa Card all those years ago just to get his toddler to go to sleep, but I now think that maybe he was just annoyed with my mother for things involving their divorce and the tree was a nice, branchy thing upon which he could project his rolling anger.
We still lit the menorah for Chanukah, of course, but things began to change. All of our presents started to be given at Christmas. One year, I knew that I was getting a book that I really wanted and I knew it had already been purchased and it was somewhere inside that house. (It was probably in my mother’s closet somewhere. Even after that hiding place was exposed and its exposure helped to destroy some of what remained of my sister’s childhood wonder, I think my mother still used the closet as the place to stick the gifts until she gave them to us.) After we sang the song you sing when you light the Chanukah candles – a song I still remember but I have no idea what it means because it’s in Hebrew – I asked if I could have a present, just a small one, like maybe my book.
“You’ll get all of your gifts on Christmas,” my mother told me patiently, sliding a plate under the menorah so the wax of the candles wouldn’t drip and land on our white kitchen counters.
“We’re Jewish,” I shot back, and we were, and I guess I had a good reason to be annoyed. But the thing was, my annoyance wasn’t a bit due to a compromised religious moment in my burgeoning development; it was about me not getting my fucking present.
Once that stepfather’s marital tenure thankfully ended, we never had a Christmas tree again. I still miss it. There’s something that is perfect about coming downstairs in the middle of the night to get a glass of water and seeing the glistening bulbs and how the light bounces off some of the ornaments and that the tree fills the house with the scent of pine. It’s a beautiful sight, and if I have kids, I will absolutely get them a Christmas tree. I don’t think that I’ll cram the tree with bears, but I do know that the tree I have won’t be religiously based. It will be an annual piece of décor that will bring me back to the joy and wonder I felt all those years ago.
Christmas now is less special for me. My family still gets together and we loll around in comfortable clothing and we give gifts and my sister’s kids open stockings my parents have for them. I usually get a chocolate Santa from my mother too, and I like to unwrap him slowly and then bite his entire head off. There’s always a ton of food and people will stop by and most of them will bring cookies and it’s always a lovely day, but it’s not what it was.
My father is not here anymore.
My sister never wants to help me build a fort.
I have learned a lot and I have maybe lost too much.
I don’t believe anymore in the wonder of it all.
And I’ve never once heard those sleigh bells ringing in the snowy distance.