I must have been four years old; certainly under five. It was the month of December. We listened to the radio in our home, and I heard the songs about a jolly old man. I saw pictures of him too, in the day-old newspaper we got from the neighbors. And I knew his name. Santa. He was the one who would know if we were naughty or nice, and if we were nice, he would give us a present.
I found myself singing along with the radio: Santa Claus is coming to town.” My mother stopped me, explaining that if my father heard me singing that song, it would make him unhappy. Besides, Santa Claus wasn’t coming to our house. “Why?” I wanted to know. “Because we’re Jewish, and Santa Claus doesn’t come to Jewish homes,” she said patiently.
I don’t know if my mother noticed my distressed surprise, but she went on to tell me that Santa Claus wasn’t real. He was like a fairy tale, a story that had witches and animals that talked. But that didn’t satisfy me. I thought there might really be witches somewhere, and maybe even talking animals.
Very carefully, my mother began to separate childish fiction from the realities of life. As I began to see that not everything I’d heard about or imagined was real, I asked, “But Ma, is there a God?” Her answer was shocking. She said, “I’m pretty sure there is.” That wasn’t enough. I would have liked some real assurance.
Two thousand miles away there lived a little Jewish girl who was destined to become my wife. She had never heard about Santa Claus. Her parents never talked about him, but she learned a lot about God. He was Someone who helped people, and sometimes gave them what they wanted.
The little girl loved her red Mickey Mouse balloon. It had a cardboard base shaped like shoes, and whenever she tossed it into the air, it would come back down on its feet. After much loving play, the balloon popped in mid-air, and the little girl was heartbroken. She resorted to the only hope she had. She just knew God was real and that He could fix her toy if He wanted to. Cradling that ragged latex corpse in her little hand, she prayed. She didn’t hold it against God when He didn’t fix her beloved balloon. That was simple, genuine, childlike faith. Years later, that faith was severely tested. Yet eventually, it was restored.
Most Jewish children are taught to believe in some kind of God. Often those who do the teaching are not quite sure themselves who or what He is. The one certainty is that He is not the god of the Christians.
For Jewish children who live in lands where Christmas is celebrated, the holiday becomes a wall, dividing us from our playmates and producing an “us/them” status. From youth, we Jews are confronted with the reality that we are not like “them.” We’re not supposed to let ourselves enjoy what “they” enjoy. The issue is not whether Santa is real, but whether Jesus is real. To Jewish people He is not. Our people know that He lived in a real time and place, but that’s as far as the reality goes. And if what Christians say about Jesus is not real, He is a false god and we (Jews) certainly need a wall to protect us from such idolatry. But if Christianity is true and Jesus is real, the wall must come down. Nevertheless, the tearing down must come from the Jewish side— otherwise it is just another assault on the Jewish people.
As a child, I had to be taught that Christmas was not for us because it was someone else’s religion. As an adult, I questioned whether or not God existed, and concluded that Judaism was “our” superstition and Christianity was “theirs.” Superstitions might be useful, they might even be fun, but they were not true.
When God made Himself known to me in Christ, I could see that Jesus is for us Jews. He is the Jewish Messiah and we should celebrate His coming! The day of His advent should have been a Jewish holiday.
The surprising thing (at least to me) is that so many Jewish people do have tender hearts at Christmas time. Some almost want it to be true. Not the Santa Claus part, but the part about the Baby. Born as a displaced person, that Child was and is the hope of all the world. His birth occasioned angelic choirs singing “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”
And so, we Jews for Jesus are busy tearing down that wall.