Saturday, December 20, 2008

An Atheist's Christmas in the Bronx

Even though my relatives and I were atheist Jews in a predominantly Christian country, I rarely felt as if I was out of the mainstream. Mom, Dad, and Nanny were just as American as anybody else, although maybe just a little louder. OK, a lot louder.

Up until the time I was six, I even imagined that I believed — as much as any fundy kid did — in Santa Claus. I had already dismissed the idea of god, because it just didn’t make any sense. But Santa Claus was different. I mean, the guy was all over the TV screen. He prattled on and on about good conduct with Pinky Lee and Rootie Kazootie, paid surprise visits on cowboys and spacemen and cartoon animals, and even joked snidely about Mrs. Claus with Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason. From the comfort of my living-room, I'd actually seen him ride down Broadway in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade; every kid in New York knew that he was on the way to his big throne in the world's most famous department store. And he never said, "Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas — except for atheist Jews." He greeted us all, boys and girls of every persuasion. Santa's sole criterion for toy-distribution was a kid's behavior, not his heritage.

Mom, who was always a sucker for family togetherness as depicted in Norman Rockwell illustrations, encouraged my belief. She made a small bow to Chanukah by giving us chocolate gelt, pieces of candy money wrapped in "gold;" sometimes we even lit the menorah. But her obvious opinion, one which we kids shared, was that Chanukah couldn't hold a candle to Christmas. If it had been entirely up to her, we would have all gathered together like a perfect television family, to sing carols and drink eggnog under the mistletoe. Santa Claus was coming to town, and our household was on his itinerary.

Dad went along with her, but only because he didn't have the energy to fight. As a mailman, he worked particularly hard during the holidays when the post office was flooded with thousands of cards from those “meshuga goyim.” I think he reluctantly enjoyed the message of peace on earth, goodwill to men: "Do me something, but that Jesus must have been a real mensch. He was a Jew, d'ja know that?"

Still, Dad could never resist reminding us that we were strangers in a strange land.

"If some fat Christian in a red suit ever snuck up on my grandparents during the night, they would have thought it was a pogrom. But go ahead and believe what you wanna believe. Just remember, Santa Claus is poor this year."

In our house, we never had a Christmas tree. A few families in the community had Chanukah bushes, but not us. Dad hated Nature, and complained constantly that Mom's snake plants were stealing his air. He was sure that bringing a whole tree into the apartment would make it impossible for us to breathe. His main objection, though, was that it would be too much trouble.

"And who's gonna put it together? You?"

"There's nothing to put together, Dad. It's a tree."

"Listen, Sonny Boy, I work hard all day. I don't need to be monkeying around with all those momzer lights and doodads and that shiny stringy stuff—what do the goyim call it?—and having to remember to water the damn thing and not knock it over when I wake up in the middle of the night to pish. You want a tree, move to the forest."

Mom, who took on more and more of a "Babes in Toyland" persona the closer we got to the holidays, who walked around the apartment singing Hit Parade carols like "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," would have loved having a Christmas tree. And she probably could have prevailed easily over Dad if she'd insisted. But she worried about how she could smuggle it in without the neighbors seeing.

"Mom," I'd reason, "who cares? You buy ham and bacon at the store all the time, and we never go to shul."

"A Christmas tree is different."

"What's different about it?"

"Well, bacon is not about Jesus. But a Christmas tree ... that's a very, very Christian thing. It's a whole big megillah about stuff we don't believe in. Mrs. Tannenbaum downstairs would have a conniption if she saw us. I'll hang a stocking and we'll put out a little table for Santa to leave toys on. Nobody has to know."

And that's what she always did. On Christmas Eve, she'd tape two of her nylons, one for Risa and one for me, to the window of our bedroom. We had no chimneys in our project, which worried me. But Mom swore that Santa would ring the doorbell once we kids were asleep, and that he'd give all our toys to her. It never occurred to me to ask why we bothered going through the whole rigmarole with the stocking if he was just going to show up with the stuff at our door like an overweight version of the Seltzer Man.

What I did think to challenge, however, was the plethora of Santas. Everywhere I looked, there he was. He chatted with millions of children in every single department store in New York City. Mom's explanation, which worked for a few years, was that the guy kept running back and forth across the street between Macy's and Gimbel's, stopping this relay only occasionally to take the subway uptown to the Bronx for a stint at Alexander's. And, she added, when he wasn't holding court in some toy department, he was hopping from street corner to street corner to ring a bell for the Salvation Army, or racing to a TV studio to sit for a few minutes with Arthur Godfrey.

But by the time I was six, I was already well on the road to skepticism. I tallied up all the Clauses and thought: How can this be?

It was Nanny who came up with an intricate Santa Claus Classification System, an organizational hierarchy that sounded reasonable. She explained that the real, honest-to-goodness Santa Claus was the one at Macy's, except during the week she had a falling-out with the store because it had run out of My Sin perfume, during which time the Genuine Article had moved briefly to Gimbel's. He was also the one who appeared on prime-time television shows, as long as the star was somebody she liked.

"Oh, yeah," Nanny said, "the Jack Benny Santa Claus is definitely the real one."

"But who's at Macy's while he's on TV?"

"He puts up a sign: Out to Dinner. What, you don't think he has a nice supper every night, with that belly?"

"But if he was on with Jack Benny," I asked, "when did he eat?"

"Always with you it's questions. Listen, they gave him a tongue sandwich and a cup of red Jell-O backstage."

"So that's what happened when he visited Ed Sullivan, too?"

"No, no, use your head. That was an Actor. The real Santa Claus is gonna go on with that shmo? What are you talking?"

"What about the Santa Claus at Alexander's?"

"A Substitute. Santa has a big family, they all look like him. Y'know, like me and my sisters. His brothers go to all the stores, the managers never know the difference."

"Oh, so the one at Klein's is also a substitute, right?"

"Klein's? Feh? That one's a Faker. You'll sit on his lap, he'll try to sell you some shmatta. They're gonna get the real Santa Claus when they can't even clean their bathrooms properly? Who fills your head with such nonsense?"

"So what about the guys who ring the bells?"

"Helpers. Santa gives them a couple of bucks and they work for him."

"But they all look just like him."

"Yeah, so what? Santa's dumb? He advertises to hire, and it says they have to be fat. Except that skinny zhlub standing there by the subway entrance with his beard falling off. Listen, stop hocking me with Santa Claus and help me pick out a Chanukah present for your cousin Marty."

It was a lot of work using Nanny's elaborate taxonomy, and sorting each Santa into his proper slot nearly drove me nuts. But I was good at puzzles and games, and enjoyed the challenge of figuring out who was who. The Santa who had posed for the Coke ad in Life Magazine was, obviously, the Genuine Article; the one who had posed for Pepsi was an Actor. Canada Dry Ginger Ale's Santa was an acceptable Substitute, particularly when I'd had an upset stomach one day, but 7-Up's was a blatant Faker if I ever saw one.

* * *
Regardless of who stood in for Santa on other occasions, I knew that he, himself, was gonna be the one to show up with the loot. That Christmas Eve when I was six, my sister and I were ushered to sleep in a state of near-delirium. Mom had been unusually Christmas-y all night, coyly crooning a medley of the great Yuletide standards written by Jews: "White Christmas," "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," and her own version of a Jerome Kern classic:
They asked me how I knew
Santa Claus was true.
I of course replied,
"Santa has to hide —
Toys get in your eyes."
Even Dad joined in the festive spirit, using a lit cigarette to conduct Mom. My sister, who was only a year and a half old, had caught the excitement, and kept screaming "Santa Claus, Santa Claus," a mantra that eventually conked her out in mid-shout. Shortly thereafter, she was nestled all snug in her bed, dreaming, no doubt, of sugar plums, even though no one in my family had any idea what they were.

But I stayed wide awake, now and then ducking under the covers to check my glow-in-the-dark watch, a practical Chanukah gift I had received from an uncle with connections in the jewelry business. A half-hour eternity must have passed while I waited and waited and waited for the sound of the doorbell announcing Santa's arrival.

Mom peeked her head into our room. "You kids asleep?" she whispered.

I had recently learned that my fake snoring fooled no one, so I just lay there, perfectly still. Mom and Dad tiptoed quietly in. Mom was frequently subject to fits of giddiness, and was evidently in the throes of one. She couldn't stop tittering. Dad banged his knee on the little table they'd put in the center of the room, dropped what sounded like a 20-megaton toy, and yelled out


Stifled snickering from Mom, who tried unsuccessfully to turn serious. "Did it break, Hon?"

"How the hell do I know? It's wrapped."

"I mean the table. It sounded like it went flying."

"Nah. It just slid along the floor a little."

"Do you think it scratched the wood?"

"It scratched my leg, I'll tell you that."

"You're not bleeding on the toys, are you?"

"Who cares about the goddamn toys, f'cryinoutloud? I'm wounded here. You and your farkockteh Christmas."

"Sha. Die kinder."

The next thing Dad did was to pull down a curtain rod on the window when he went to fill the stocking.

"Agghhh. Shit."

"Sha." Uncontrollable giggling. "What happened?"

"I got caught on the drapes."

"Don't break the window."

"Do you wanna do this, Babe? Do you wanna do this?"

Mom made a noise that sounded like she was being tickled unmercifully.

"Don't put a run in my stocking."

"Just tell me if you wanna do this. What are you, some secret shikseh, the Christmas maven? Owww. Goddamn radiator. It's hot, f'Chrissake! These chocolate cigarettes are gonna melt before the kids wake up."

"Gimme them. I'll put them on the table."

"What else goes in here?"

"The yo-yos and the sock puppets. Can you squoosh the puppets in?"

A ripping sound revealed that he couldn't.

"What'd you rip?"

"Your stocking. Relax."

Hysterical cackling. "That's a good stocking."

"Oh, and my knee wasn't a good knee?"

"Your knee, you can cover up. My stocking, everybody sees."

"So do me something. Next time we go out, you can wear the sock puppets. Are we done with this mishegoss?"

“I think the kids are up. Are you up?”

Aha! A trap. Mom expected me to say “no,” like I usually did. But I just lay there. Miraculously, I had managed to keep totally quiet through all the mayhem. I hoped I could resist the urge to get up right away and check whether all my new toys were still intact.

Mom whispered, "Well, I guess they’re sleeping. Gut yontif" — "Happy holiday" — and I could hear kissing. I hoped it was happening far enough way from my toys that they didn’t get any lovey-dovey cooties on them. I knew that in the morning, the room was going to look like it had been attacked by an army of Subs and Zhlubs, Helpers and Actors and Fakers. But as my parents walked through the door, both chuckling now, I lay there in my bed, a real atheist at last, proud of my discovery: Mom and Dad, and they alone, were the Genuine Article.