When I was growing up, my family often went to the mall during the winter holiday season. But there was only one time my parents let me meet Santa.
To my little-girl mind, the reason we’d gone that day—to buy Hanukkah gifts? or to get snow boots for me and my sister?—was beside the point, which is perhaps why I cannot recall that detail now. What I do remember, though, is that the mall was dressed up for the holidays, by which I mean mostly Christmas.
The decorations offered a magic spectacle of red and green, lights and tinsel. Carols played over an invisible stereo system, working shoppers into a festive tizzy. Meanwhile, I counted the disappointing number of electric menorahs in the store windows, their blue and white bulbs paling next to the flashing garlands that ringed the mall’s large, bejeweled Christmas tree.
On the other hand, the name Merri was never as popular as it was that time of year.
In the story my family would tell for decades, I suddenly asked to meet Santa, who was holding court in the mall in the weeks leading up to Christmas. With his long white beard, he may have looked like a venerable rabbi in a red suit. But we were synagogue-attending, more or less kosher-keeping Jews. My parents refused my request on religious grounds, though perhaps also because they noticed the length of the line.
“We don’t believe in Santa Claus,” they told me.
He was sitting right there. How could they deny his existence?
“And we’re Jewish. We don’t celebrate Christmas.”
This, of course, I knew.
They wouldn’t budge. Nor would I, a tenacious child under ordinary circumstances. After all, I wasn’t asking to dig into the full buffet of Christmas. I only wanted the forshpeis of a short audience with Santa.
“Oh, did you throw a tantrum!” my mother would exclaim, rolling her eyes in the same dramatic way each time she’d recount this legendary anecdote from my childhood. My parents only relented to save face, stewing in a broth of my making as we took our place in line, interlopers waiting to meet the official spokesperson of a holiday we did not celebrate.
We snaked toward a North Pole blanketed in mounds of fake snow, inching forward between the velvet cordons. When I took a seat on Santa’s knee, the entire world melted away—the mall and the flashing lights encircling the tree and my parents and all the presumably non-Jewish children who would have their turn after me. I even managed to forget for the duration that this may well have been an act of treason against God, a possibility I’d worried about as we waited in line. As much as I wanted to meet Santa, I didn’t want to be disqualified from the latkes and dreidels and other perks of Hanukkah.
Santa had a lot of children waiting for him so he got right to the point, launching into the text of a script he must have repeated in a constant loop that day. I’d watched enough Christmas movies to know that he’d first ask if I’d been a good little girl. I hope I didn’t lie when I answered, that I said something like, “Most of the time.” My mother always left out that part of the story.
“What would you like for Christmas?”
I told him I didn’t want anything for Christmas.
“But everyone wants something for Christmas!” he insisted.
“Nope,” I assured him.
“Well, why not?”
“I want a Hanukkah present,” I said. “Because I’m Jewish!”
At that point, Santa leaned in and divulged in a hush, “So am I!”
Santa’s confession was the punchline that never grew stale, the perfect climax to an improbable narrative about a Jewish girl asking a Jewish Santa for a Hanukkah gift. He and I were both impostors in the snow globe of a suburban American mall during the holiday season, watching the electric menorahs cast their glow from the other side of the glass. In retrospect, I can only assume Santa needed the job. I was young, but I was proud to be a Jew. All I wanted was the chance to participate in something outsize that seemed to belong to everyone else. Well, that and to ask for a big gift that wasn’t the doll, game, or days-of-the-week underwear set I got for Hanukkah each year.
I laugh with embarrassment about it now, about how brazen and naive I was to try to enter the doors of a club to which I did not belong. I wish I could travel back in time and chide my little-girl self, telling her that Santa would’ve reached our house and seen the candles burning in the menorah on the dining room table and the mezuzahs on the doors and known he had been duped. He would’ve packed up my gifts and ridden off in his sleigh posthaste. But that’s not part of the story my mom told for decades or the one I have shared countless times myself, never failing to entertain or fill conversational lulls at dinner parties.
Recently, I began to yearn for more details about what happened that day and asked my mom to help me fill in the missing pieces. It was silly to think that after so many years had passed she’d have any idea what we’d gone to buy or my exact age at that time. Yet I was stunned to discover she could not remember the event at all. The story she had repeated so often, polishing it to a shine, had slipped from the grip of her memory—and with it, a piece of my childhood.
With Hanukkah right behind us, I decided to write it down, before the gem of it has the chance to disappear for good. The timing seems right. Hanukkah is about more than latkes and dreidels. It is an eight-day reminder to be true to ourselves. By setting a menorah in the window, we boldly and unapologetically announce to the world, “Yes, we are Jews!” And that fact, more than any blue or white bulbs glowing in any store window, is the light that shines our way, allowing us to sparkle even in the shadow of the brightest, most beautiful Christmas tree at the mall.
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Merri Ukraincik is a blogger and essayist who is at work on a memoir. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.