Feldman Defends Santa

In Defense of Santa Claus

The Christmas parade used to come right down Center Street in Milwaukee—a half block from our house—and one year, I was seven or eight, I crawled under one of the cream puff Pontiacs in the Uptown used car lot (our Christmas lights were the bulbs strung over the car lots endemic to our neighborhood) to sneak a peek at Santy. He wasn’t ours, of course, and when I crawled out from under the front bumper and he seemed to wave at me in passing, I felt like a fraud. It wasn’t a question of whether Santa existed or not, but more like whether I did. I had Santa envy, bad. Mom did take me to Gimbel’s to get my picture taken with him when I was about three (couldn’t find that picture when we cleaned out mom’s things—and it was the one I wanted most!) and one Chanukah we even hung stockings from the mantle, but it was a fake fireplace and nothing came of it. I remember thinking how great it would be if Santa could have worked both sides of the street; you know, first Christmas eve, then eight days schlepping presents from a Lincoln Town Car. Come to think of it, I don’t know which came first, the revelation that there may have been no Santa Claus or that we were Jewish and it was a moot point, anyway. For a while I thought Rabbi Twerski was our Santa Claus, since not only was he a ringer for him, but he was all sweetness, light, and generosity, although I never brought it up during my Bar Mitzvah studies.
In fact, St. Nicholas, with his white beard and black robes, very much resembled a rabbi, although it must be said that he was Bishop of Myra in the fourth century, in what is now Turkey. There, through his beneficence and courageous interventions on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, he became the most venerated saint of the middle ages; protector of the poor, sailors, charitable and benevolent organizations, merchants, pawnbrokers (?), unmarried women and, above all, children, whose lives he saved and families he fed in his miracles. Nicholas was the benefactor of children in a time when childhood did not even exist, let alone any protections for the young. St. Nicholas gave away his personal fortune to those in need, riding into legend on a white horse, putting little tsatskes (toys) or lumps of coal, as appropriate, in children’s boots left outside their doors, sometimes accompanied by the scary ogre Krampus, bad cop to his good. Neglected after the Reformation, Nicholas holed up in Holland as Sinterklaas, and even adapted to the changing times, sailing into Amsterdam harbor at the wheel of a steamboat filled with presents and, of course, more than enough leftover coal. Sinterklaas sailed with the Dutch colonists to New Amsterdam, where, like so many immigrants, he was given an Americanized name, Santa Claus, and soon was recognized in the New World, as he had been in the Old, as the personification of benevolence, good will, and giving during Christmas, and other times as needed.
And still very much needed, don’t you think?

Michael Feldman

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