Making peace with Santa and Christmases past

It’s that time of year again. You can dodge Union Square, but there’s no escaping it: Santa Claus is coming to town, and he couldn’t care less about you.

Between the lights, trees, carols, bows and wreaths, for many of us Jews, Christmas jeer is in the air.

And while I may seem all bah humbug today, the truth is, this holiday used to be mine.

When my parents divorced, I was at an age where I would have sooner shoved tinsel in my mouth than hang it on a tree. It was before I could say the words “Merry Christmas.” With the arrival of my non-Jewish stepfather, I learned how.

I was no dummy. Even at 4, I knew Chanukah didn’t hold a candle — let alone eight of them — to Christmas. I reveled in the holiday cheer, tried not to break too many ornaments, carefully hung my stocking and was comforted by the smell of pine that filled our home.

And the presents? One look at the loot under our tree, and I knew I’d hit the jackpot.

My first Christmas, Santa brought me the gift I’d begged for: Baby Alive, circa 1973 — the original doll to eat, drink and require diapers. After tearing open the box, I bolted upstairs to bond with my baby. I threw her on the shag carpet, stirred up her entire food supply and force-fed her motorized mouth as quickly as I could jam that little pink spoon in it.

I then held the diaper-less doll in front of me, waiting for her next move. It wasn’t long before I shrieked in horror, chucked the baby to the side and refused to touch her again.

Santa, however, didn’t seem to mind. He came back to me each year — although never again with a doll — until my mom and stepdad split up 14 years later. With that, Jolly St. Nick gave me the heave-ho-ho-ho.

By that time, I’d outgrown the need for excessive gifts. But I recently realized that with the end of Christmas, I’d lost something bigger than presents. Christmas was never about religion — for me, or for any of us. It was about the rituals, the family routine, my sense of belonging.

On Christmas morning, I’d join my brother and sister in racing down our farmhouse hallways to wake the parents and jumpstart the gift opening. We’d sit in our flannel pajamas, in front of a crackling fire, listening to holiday music, sipping hot cocoa. Later, we’d bundle up for the Michigan snow and head over to my step-grandparents for that sweet HoneyBaked Ham dinner. I can still taste it.

I know Christmas was never really mine to have. But what’s a Jewish woman to do when the traditions of her childhood are signed away with divorce papers?

“It depends on the relationship the child has with the partner who is staying or leaving,” said Helena McMahon of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s Interfaith Connection, an 18-year-old program to facilitate negotiations between interfaith and intercultural couples.

While I wasn’t born to an interfaith couple, I was raised by one, I told her. So when Santa cold-shouldered me, I was left an outsider and in a holiday lurch.

“Inevitably, it involves a feeling of loss,” and it stirs up questions about identity, McMahon said. “Who am I now? Where do I fit in?”

My response, in the following years, was a full-throttle pursuit of Judaism — an effort to stake my claim to what was rightfully mine. And maybe that was Santa’s best gift to me.

But the oily smell of latkes that now lingers in my home makes me long for the fresh scent of pine. And the gargantuan Chabad menorahs that dot America’s malls and shopping districts seem a laughable attempt to compete with a season we Jews can’t possibly touch.

A dusty box of Christmas decorations still sits in my mother’s basement, unopened for 15 years. Presumably the red stocking with my name across the top is tucked in there somewhere.

Maybe I’ll dig it out on my next visit. Not because I plan to hang it on my fireplace, but because it’s a reminder of where I’ve been.

Jessica Ravitz, a recent graduate of U.C, Berkeley’s journalism school, is now a staff writer at the Salt Lake Tribune.