This is the piece I read last night for one of the Bookmarks series of readings at The Arts Center of the Capital Region. The theme: Family at the Holidays. The reading was curated by the magnificent Marion Roach Smith, and it was a blast.
♦ ♦ ♦
A few days after Christmas, we were in line at the deli when a young dad struck up a conversation with my daughter. Lena was three, a little younger than the kids in his cart.
“Did Santa bring you something good this year?” he asked.
I grew up Jewish in a small town in Virginia; typically I respond to “Merry Christmas” with a hearty “And a Merry Christmas to you.” But this was different. Asking a random child about Santa in Albany, New York, where Yom Kippur is a school holiday, struck me as a little careless.
Indeed, my daughter looked confused, even troubled. I was straining to think of a polite way to tell the guy he was a jackass when Lena did it for me.
Solemnly she said, “Santa Claus is just pretend.”
The dad looked stricken and came closer, glancing back at his own little cart-riders. “Don’t tell my kids, ok,” he said to Lena. “They still think he’s real.” Lena nodded, accepting the burden of discretion.
I was proud of her in about four different ways, but a little sad, too. To be a nice little girl she has to hold her tongue. Won’t it be a relief when she doesn’t have to anymore—when she can safely assume that all her peers are, shall we say, on the same page.
That is a relief I doubt I will ever feel. I want to be a nice little girl, but I am an atheist. Saying “God is just pretend”—even to grownups—just seems mean, like ripping off Santa’s beard. Actually, God has a lot in common with Santa: You never see him, but you know he sees you; you ask him for stuff, and he may or may not deliver. If he doesn’t deliver, you probably didn’t deserve it after all.
Santa, meanwhile, is clearly God for children. My neighbor told me he saw his son kneel down to pray to Santa one night before bed; another friend recounted that her daughter balked at going to church the Sunday after she learned the truth about Santa. She had deduced that all the invisible powers her parents asked her to believe in were . . . just pretend.
But that child was unusual. While the Santa Claus story always ends with the revelation of the truth—a rite of passage for every Christian child—the God story either never ends or it ends in private. Realizing you don’t believe is often a secret rite of passage–like when you first feel lust, when you first realize you can cheat on a test, when you consciously act to protect one parent from another. We cross these lines between the child world and the adult world stealthily, without speaking of them, sometimes without even admitting them to ourselves.
In fact, like Santa, God is a fiction that even nonbelieving parents feel duty-bound to pass on. They don’t plan to but when their four‐year-old asks, “But who was the first man?” or “Where did mountains come from?” or “Why did Aunt Mary die? I thought only old people died?” telling the God story is simply the easiest way.
I love stories. I love fictional characters. I love having Atticus Finch and Emma Woodhouse and Zorba the Greek in my head; I need them there. I just don’t understand the point of pretending that they’re real. But since, in this country, I’m in the minority, I have to decide—like Lena—either to be nice or to be honest.
We actually did celebrate Christmas for many years when I was a kid and I remember with joy the first Christmas we all—down to my sister five years younger—knew the truth about Santa. That was the best time: when Santa became a presence we created together. When we all knew it was my dad’s fancy calligraphy on Santa’s note thanking us for the cookies, and when one of us girls, after opening a present, teased my parents by exclaiming, “Oh that Santa, he left the price‐tag on again.”
That’s what I wish we could do for God: move him gently from the real realm to the fictional one—or let’s say the mythic one—where he belongs. Where he can still inspire and move us, and even bring us together on the holidays in a shared effort at invoking his spirit.
“Oh that God,” we might say at Thanksgiving. “He keeps on giving us so much more than we could ask for. May he spread his love and the earth’s bounty to all who are in need.”
And then, like kids “helping” Santa, we would volunteer at a soup kitchen the very next day.
God would still be pretend, but his power would be real.