My family celebrates Christmas. That might not seem so surprising, except for the fact that we're Jewish. We also celebrate Chanuka (which I am choosing to spell the way the Temple spells it - not any of the multiple greeting card spellings).
Like so many families across America, we are a mix of cultures. My family is Jewish from Eastern Europe, my wife is a mix of Mexican and European, raised Catholic. The holidays are one of the few times a year where each of us gets to share in the traditions of our childhoods - hers with a tree, ornaments and egg nog - ours with menorahs, dreidels and latkes. Candy canes on one weekend and chocolate coins on the next. My three sons are like the guy sitting at a slot machine when it pays off - they get presents for 8 days of Hannuka (alternate spelling) and then a bushel basket of more presents from my in-laws family on Christmas. Jackpot.
Along with the nog and over-indulgence on potato pancakes, there is one holiday tradition my family holds the most dear - participating in an annual food basket program through local Los Angeles Head Start centers. It's through an amazing organization called One Voice which provides a basket of fresh vegetables, turkey, canned goods and pie - enough to last for a couple of weeks into the new year. For every one of the twenty-five years I've known my wife (who helped found this group) we've packed the baskets and then (on the Sunday before Christmas) traveled to a Head Start center for four hours to hand out, hug, bring hope and holiday cheer to over 300 families that come through the center. The families are hugged at least a dozen times as they travel from station to station receiving food, toys, books and get a picture taken with Santa. And for the first 20 years of this adventure, I was a "greeter" which required superior embracing and schlepping skills. But nothing more.
But as my middle widened and my own beard whitened, I became a more and more likely candidate to don the red suit, black belt and boots, white hair and beard. (For those 8 and under - spoiler alert - stop reading - there's more than one Santa.) Four years ago, I was drafted to the red and white - to take over the chair and lend my knees for happy kids to park and squirm.
Now, to be totally candid, being St. Nick wasn't something I really embraced at the start. Growing up in a Jewish home, I didn't really get the whole Santa thing. Old fat guy with a white beard who steals into your house through the chimney, eats your cookies and leaves you presents? Seriously? 364 other days a year wouldn't this senior citizen be arrested for breaking and entering? And with all that red he seemed a bit too similar to another (less jovial) Christian icon (the Devil - Beezelbub - Satan). Maybe there where horns under that red hat? Or a little pitchfork under that big jacket?
And having already suspended disbelief to buy into the "there was only enough oil for one night, but it lasted eight nights" nonsense - I couldn't embrace the "he delivers presents to all the children around the world in one night" thing. When my Mom would take us shopping at a mall (we called them shopping centers back then) we'd always breeze by the line of kids waiting to see Santa - being placated with the "you get eight nights of presents" chestnut being pulled ouf of the Jewish parents handbook every year at this time. Santa was for other kids, not us.
But then I married the girl of my dreams and she came with a Santa-loving, wreath-buying, carol-singing, stocking-hanging family. I even got my own stocking. Then we had kids - and I got to experience the wonder and joy of Santa (and believing in him) as my children grew up. I saw their faces light up each year when the Rudolph (and Santa) claymation special would brighten our living room. So, the creepy old fat guy who weirdly liked to have kids on his lap, suddenly became an icon of family get-togethers, good feelings and smiling kids. I was beginning to like the guy.
So, with great trepidation (can a Jewish guy really find his inner Santa?), I agreed to be Old Saint Nick for the One Voice event. It's a pretty serious transformation. Big red jacket with white trim goes over my red Roots t-shirt. Giant drawstring red pants that could have fit a first episode Biggest Loser contestant pulled up and into black patent leather (plastic) black sleeves which fit over my black slip-ons (to make them look like big, knee-high boots). Then the curly white beard pulled over the ears, followed by the curly white wig (don't tell anyone, but Santa has a bit of a mullet). The glasses, white gloves and big red and white trimmed hat go on last.
Ho Ho Ho time.
I strut to the tiny schoolroom chair, which for today is Santa's throne.
One by one, the Head Start kids begin to arrive and would peak around the corner as they entered - hoping to see me. Four and five year olds peaking through the legs of their parents, like a skiddish deer hiding in long weeds. When we'd make eye contact a moment of sheer magic happens. Their eyes get bigger than a frisbee and with a breath bigger than they've ever taken a smile erupts and overtakes their little faces. Time stands still. They can't stop staring. Can't breath. Can't blink. For that shining, delicious moment I really am Santa and they are meeting the manifestation of their best desires and dreams.
Slowly they make their way to me. Each step a drama. Then up on to my lap and I can feel all their fear, trepidation, delight and wonder connecting to me. For less than half I speak English. "What's your name? How old are you? What are you hoping for this Christmas?" For the rest I trot out my best high school Spanish and watch the amazement as Santa becomes Latino - perhaps for the first time. "Feliz Navidad" "Hace un buen año nuevo"
The little ones drag along their older siblings and parents - and, for them, for that brief moment, they are a little kid again. The grins and giggles become contagious. This is the best job on the planet.
My Ho Ho Hos get bigger and happier with each family.
Then an hour into it a tiny latino boy, dressed in a Spiderman sweatshirt and hand me down jeans comes around the bend and moves to me. In what seems like slow-motion he pulls out a yellow card made of construction paper from behind his back. On the front he's showing me it says two simple words. Dear Santa.
And now I'm in tears. I'm not a white haired guy in a red suit. I'm hope. I'm a big bright spot in a life of struggle I can't imagine. I'm the best thing of the season. He's been thinking and dreaming of this moment for weeks.
And smiling. I hide my face for a moment. I have to regroup. There's no crying in Santa-land. And with a big "Feliz Navidiad" that would embarrass Jose Feliciano, I am back.
This isn't an assignment. It's an honor.
This isn't something to fear but to absorb.
For a few hours one Sunday a year I get to be the most special person in the lives of a few hundred four year olds. Can anything be better than that?
Saint Nick is not about presents or sleighs or even a Red-nosed reindeer. He's a walking, talking jolly piece of candy-caned joy. He's a rotund, smiling slice of hope. Of happiness. And for that moment on Santa's knee every kid is the same. The ones from Head Start and the ones from Beverly Hills. The ones from New York and the ones from California. Take it from a Santa that knows.
You taught this Jewish kid the meaning of Christmas.
Come rain or shine - I'll be back next year.