Yes, Polina, There is a Santa Claus

Christmas is soon upon us, and I can’t wait for it to be even sooner this year. Ever since I told Polina about Christmas and, more specifically, Santa Claus, I’ve been hearing almost daily, multiple times per day, “I want Santa.” “Santa is coming. He’s going to put presents under the Christmas tree.” “I want Christmas.” And variations thereof. Every day Polina reminds me of Christmas, and I couldn’t be happier that she loves the holiday as much as I do.

Christmas is my favorite time of the year. Growing up in Philadelphia, it was the time of year when people were actually nice to each other. It lasted until the first attack by either side in the Middle East (back when Israel and Palestine dominated international headlines), which dashed the innocence that came with the new year, and we returned to our gruffy selves.

My memory of Philadelphia in the 1980s was that it was analogous to Dickensonian London, except it was… Philadelphia. People of all social classes shared the same sidewalk. It wasn’t divided by class like the more modern cities with planned neighborhoods and gated communities. It was a gritty city. Most of the year, people gazed down as they walked and were concerned mainly with getting to where they were going. You were a second thought. It wasn’t as rude as New York City, but it was palpable.

As Christmas approached, the grittiness in the air lifted. My favorite Christmas memory was when I was about 10 years old walking with my parents in downtown Philly doing holiday shopping. It was the first year that I was actually a part of the holiday shopping. It was the first year we could afford any serious holiday shopping. There was joy, yes joy in the air. For one thing, people looked up at each other and… smiled and… said Merry Christmas to one another. There were lines everywhere, but people didn’t seem to mind because everyone was so very happy. I remember almost everyone carrying a big department store shopping bag. The scene looked very much like one from A Christmas Carol except, of course, it was Philly. That experience left a huge impression on me.

And, of course, there was Santa Claus. Every year I put out milk and cookies for him, and every year I woke up to an empty glass and crumbles on the plate. That year was no different, except that I was in a different school, an inner city school, and things were about to change.

The kids laughed when I didn’t know about the birds and the bees, which I thought were, literally, the birds and the bees. I didn’t know what the fuss was about, which the other kids thought was hilarious.

But I was also confronted about my belief in Santa Claus, which they also found hilarious. I insisted that he existed, because I had seen him coming up to my neighbor’s house when I was about seven years old, dressed in his red suit. “Quick, get to bed,” my mother said. “Or Santa won’t stop by to give you any presents.” I rushed home and quickly got into bed, hoping I would be asleep before he came, lest he saw me awake and wouldn’t leave me any presents. I fell asleep with anticipation. I got presents the next day, and every year after. When I thought about Santa, I thought about that time when I saw him coming up our neighbor’s walk.

“There’s no such thing as Santa Claus,” the kids taunted. No one had ever said that to me. It was a shock. I didn’t want to believe it. I brought the dilemma to my mother, who responded in the best possible way.

On zhivyet v tvoyem sertse.” (“He lives in your heart.”)

It was a soft blow, and I wasn’t sad. Instead, I felt like a new window had opened. My belief in Santa matured. It may sound corny, but that belief never really left me. In this world of unpredictability, I looked forward to Christmas. It remains my favorite holiday. Santa is as important to me as It’s a Wonderful Life and Pachelbel’s Cannon.

And who’s to say he doesn’t live? I don’t watch a lot of television, but my cursory exploration found a lot more mention of Santa than Jesus. I found entire shows devoted to him. There is a man here locally that starts growing his beard in June to be ready for Santa Claus in December. Millions of children are going to get presents signed by Santa. Millions of adults are going to be paying for presents in January in the name of Santa. So how can he not be alive? He is alive. Every year he is alive.

Last year, Polina didn’t really understand Christmas, or Santa, or presents. She enjoyed celebrating something, and she enjoyed the wrapping paper, but she wasn’t interested in Christmas the way she is this year.

The day after Thanksgiving, I told Polina about Santa Claus, and I did it partly to rekindle my own love for the holiday. I did it with my heart pulsating to the top of my face. I told her with the same emotion that I felt about it when I was a kid, the way I still remember it.

And I didn’t lie, because he still lives in my heart.

This post was originally published December 23, 2015 on