December 27, 2012

How I Saved Christmas. ~ Caroline Scherer

One agnostic, half-Jewish Christmas enthusiast’s meditation on playing Santa for a day.

I come from a deeply unreligious but bicultural family. My father comes from a Christian tradition and my mother from a Jewish one, though neither of them very strongly. Sometimes I think that the two of them cancel each other out, meeting in the middle and taking God out of the picture entirely.

I was always thankful for that as a child, because it meant that I was spared from the many torturous hours of religious education that nearly all my peers were subjected to. I had the best of both worlds—all of the presents and none of the piety. Perhaps for this reason, Christmas quickly turned out to be my favorite holiday. Though we still lit the candles and sang the songs for Hanukkah, for me it was all about Christmas. Wrapping gifts, trimming the tree and making gingerbread were what the holidays were all about.

When I found out around age nine or so that Santa wasn’t real, I had a small existential crisis.

(I was in deep denial.)

I didn’t know what Christmas would be without that magic in it. I was ambivalent about my parents, who had been feeding me lies all this time. For a moment, I had to reconsider everything I knew about the holidays.

I got over it pretty quickly, but the whole ordeal did leave me with some questions. And I still hold onto a small shred of internal conflict over the morality of perpetuating such myths.

Should we teach our children about Santa, knowing full well that they will only be disappointed later?

I’m still not sure.

But the shoe was on the other foot this week, as I had an opportunity to play Santa. Over the past few years, there has been a veritable holy war brewing in our small, sleepy town over the role of government in holiday rituals. In fact, it has sparked an alarming amount of vitriol, with people of all faiths arguing over the presence or absence of their respective traditions in our town festivities. So, to avoid the firestorm that would undoubtedly be created by using taxpayer dollars to answer Santa letters, that duty was taken on by our very own mayor (my father). And I got to help.

This is the second year in a row that we have had the privilege of answering Santa letters. And I can say, even as a skeptic, it is absolutely a pleasure. This year, perhaps due to the strength of last year’s replies, we received almost double the letters of last year. And each one was more precious than the last.

After reading 142 letters, I’ve found that they fall into six distinct categories:

  • > Questioners.
  • These kids are usually the older ones, and they are starting to get inklings that Santa may not exist. Nevertheless, they figure better safe than sorry, and send a letter anyway. They ask for what they want, explain that they’ve been good this year and then tell Santa what’s really on their minds: “P.S. Are you real?”
  • > Brown-nosers.
  • These are the kids that are trying to milk Santa for all he’s worth. Most of the letter details all the ways they have been good this year (i.e. making their beds, clearing their plates, being nice to their siblings) and then follows with all their requests. They want good gifts, but the most important thing is that they get on the nice list.
  • > Youngsters.
  • These letters are clearly dictated to older and more accomplished scribes. Generally made up of two, three and four-year-olds who haven’t yet gotten the hang of using a crayon. Best loved for asking innocently oddball questions. For example, “Santa, are you related to Jesus?”
  • > Organizers.
  • As you might expect, organizers have it all under control. They know exactly what they want, and in what order. Their long lists are laid out in spreadsheets, color coded, priced and sometimes even include suggested retailers, so Santa knows exactly what to do.
  • > Heart Breakers.
  • These are the letters you have to read with a box of tissues on hand. They tell the story of an illness, a death in the family or some other kind of hardship, then follow with a modest list of requests. Priceless, from beginning to end.
  • > Believers.
  • The best kind of letters. Written by five, six, and seven-year olds who are old enough to write, but don’t yet have doubts about the big man in the red suit. Earnest and innocent, they have short lists and ask honest questions about the North Pole, elves and what Santa’s workshop looks like. So genuine, you can almost imagine them drifting off to visions of reindeer and sleigh bells on Christmas Eve.

I still debate the ethics of willingly lying to our kids, but it’s at times like these that I can be swayed. There are few things more wonderful than witnessing a child on Christmas morning. It is pure joy. And this year, I had a part in making some of those dreams come true. Of course they can’t hold onto that forever, but isn’t it worth experiencing for a little while? I think we all could benefit from reminding ourselves what that youthful awe feels like. It is the best magic I know.


Caroline Scherer is finding her way in the world. She is a thinker, a dreamer, a writer, and an old soul. She enjoys, but is not very good at yoga, and is feeling guilty about maybe wanting to reevaluate her vegetarianism. She is also an increasingly less recent graduate of Skidmore College, but pretends otherwise. Nowadays, she uses her liberal arts education to work at an independent bookstore and navigate the strange world of post-graduate underemployment. She is an avid swimmer, crossword puzzle enthusiast and dog lover.


Ed: Brianna B.

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