Santa’s Goats and Christmas Legends

Santa’s Goats and Christmas Legends

By Rachel Pieh Jones

santa's goats1

Stories of Christmases past get told and retold every year, slowly becoming part of our family mythology.


Christmas in Djibouti came with swirling dust storms, mosquitoes, the Islamic call to prayer, and 90-degree temperatures. It felt almost cold after the 120-degrees of summer. It was 2004, our first Christmas in Djibouti, second in Africa. We had a one-foot high Christmas tree to share with another American family and a handful of miniature ornaments. Near the tree were small packages wrapped in birthday wrapping paper or colorful t-shirts, doubling as paper for the day. White athletic socks hung along the air conditioner like stockings over the fireplace.

Our kids, four-and-a-half years old, made popcorn strings and paper chains from computer paper that they colored with green and red crayons. My husband is a master snowflake cutter and paper snowflakes hung from the ceiling. We had one CD of Christmas music and one borrowed Christmas movie, Elf. We did not have fast enough Internet to watch something online or to listen to music or purchase new music from iTunes. We ordered Chinese food for lunch. That first year in Djibouti, the best Christmas item belonged to our American friends. A Santa Claus costume.

After lunch on Christmas day the other dad disappeared. None of the kids noticed, they were too busy playing with the snowflakes and paper chains. And then! A faint jingle, a deep laugh, a knock on the door.

The door opened and in walked Santa Claus, jingling as he walked. He carried a plastic bag from the Nougaprix grocery store filled with pastel-colored candy coated almonds and lollipops.

“Santa,” our friend’s daughter said, “why are you wearing my daddy’s shoes?”

“Ho-ho-ho,” Santa said. In future years, Santa visited Djibouti barefoot. He tried to pat her on the head and she screamed and ran to hide behind her mom.

Santa sat in the living room in a plastic chair and pulled out his grocery sack.

“Ho-ho-ho,” he said and passed out candy.

My husband Tom stood at the window and looked down into the neighbor’s backyard. Three goats had been slaughtered that morning and brown and white hides now stretched over the barbed wire fence, drying.

“Santa,” our friend’s daughter said, “you sound like my dad.” She started to cry, confused and frightened. Her infant brother was already wailing.

“Ho-ho-ho,” Santa said. Her mother suggested it was time for Santa to leave. As Santa stood to go, Tom tried to distract the kids and called them to the window.

“Look,” he said, “Reindeer.” He pointed to the goatskins.

“Santa’s reindeer got skinned!” my son shouted. Henry turned away from the window just as Santa opened the door. “Santa, wait,” he called. “Wait! Your reindeer! Someone killed them.”

Screams from the baby and the little girl echoed down the hallway and Santa couldn’t hear Henry. Henry shouted louder, desperate to let Santa know what had happened to his poor reindeer but Santa stepped outside and closed the door, oblivious.

“Oh no, Santa.” Henry started to cry. He ran to the window to get another look. “How is he going to get home?”

“You told them Santa’s reindeer got skinned?” I said to Tom.

He shrugged. “I wasn’t really thinking, I guess.” He grew up on a farm and no one in his family would have been upset over skinned reindeer.

Three of the four kids were still crying when the other dad slipped back into the house. “What happened?” he asked.

We told him the story of Santa and the Skinned Goats. By the time we finished, the kids had wandered off to play and the adults were almost in tears from laughter.

*   *   *

We slowly did what Americans do, accumulated stuff. We gathered more Christmas memorabilia. Stores in Djibouti began carrying Christmas candies, decorations, and wrapping paper. Our holiday celebration started to look ever-so-slightly like the ones I had grown up with in Minnesota, including strings of lights and candy canes and Christmas music and patterned Christmas stockings, which continue to be hung over the air conditioner with care. And stories, that part of Christmas that doesn’t need to be packed up and stored away, the part we actually want to accumulate. Stories of Christmases past that get told and retold every year, slowly becoming part of our family mythology.

I could forgo all the decorations, all the Christmas-themed foods and songs and movies. No snow, no holiday parades, no white elephant gift exchanges. They all fade away into the background of my pre-expatriate life. Even the decorations we do have, all the physical items we cherish, might one day be lost or stolen or destroyed or left behind. We’ve evacuated before and we know that when you have two hours to pack and are allowed a single suitcase, the Christmas tree isn’t a priority. But the stories are.

Holidays are story times, story-bearers. We sit around the holiday dinner table and tell stories about Christmases, Thanksgivings, Easters, July Fourths past. The year we went to the Salt Lake, the lowest point in Africa and one of the hottest on the planet, where the salt was so pure white we pretended it was snow and tried to feel cold. The year we were in Minnesota, once in a decade, and Henry went hunting for the first time in his life and brought down two geese with a single bullet and we ate one for Thanksgiving dinner. The Disney World family reunion Christmas when we sang our personalized version of the 12 Djibouti Days of Christmas. The whale sharks that we swim with every year the day after Christmas, when we camp at Arta Plage under the wide starry sky.

Each year we live a new story and we add it to the pile of stories we can tell about the holidays and these stories become the links in our chain. The chain tethers us to one another, across borders and time zones and nations, across history. This is our story. This is who we are. This is how the Jones family rolls. Because we share this past, we share a sense of belonging.

The story of Santa and the Skinned Goats is retold every Christmas and every Christmas we are freshly shocked that Dad let Henry think the goats were reindeer. Every year we laugh at Henry’s earnest and useless appeal to Santa to listen. Every year we laugh about the crying kids. And every year something new happens that we add to our repertoire of story links that tell us we belong right here, in this expatriate family. Merry Christmas, joyeux noel, eid wanaagsan.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.

Some Thoughts About the Elf on My Shelf

Some Thoughts About the Elf on My Shelf

By Kris Woll

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If left up to me, the elf on our doorknob would just hang there all season.


I hate him.

Ok, those are strong words.

But I don’t like him very much.

Or maybe we are just not a good fit for each other.

And also he’s not currently on a shelf, as you can see.

I hate him because we have to move him around every night. Because we have to prove that he left while we slept, that he headed up to Santa to report on our day’s behavior. He’s added one more thing to my never-completed to do list—a list that only grows longer over the holidays—and frankly the whole arrangement is a little creepy.

Somehow, when I was a kid, Santa knew what we were up to without sending a spy. Probably because my mom called him from the kitchen each year in early December to give him an update while my sister and I sat on the couch crafting our wish lists from the back of the JCPenney Christmas catalog. I was always impressed by her direct line to North Pole and didn’t doubt that she would have his phone number. My mom had pull. And she didn’t need to shift a single decoration to drive home the point: Santa was watching, knew when we were sleeping, knew when we were awake. It’s so like us modern parents to make everything more complicated. Isn’t it enough to put up a tree and hang a few stockings and make a few cookies and DVR Charlie Brown so the kids have something to watch while we fold the laundry?

There are already many things I do not do well. Ironing, for example. And making homemade cut-out cookies. And flossing with a regularity expected by my hygienist. And other things I don’t want to admit to you because we don’t know each other well and I want you to like me. Why add a sort of scary, stiff doll to the list?

Why? Because my kids—my 7-year-old and my 3-year-old—expect it. Because it seemed cute the first year and now, as the first stack of unsolicited holiday catalogs from retailers I never buy from arrive in our mailbox, the kids ask for him. And keep asking—even when I try to distract them with chocolate-filled Advent calendars (a tradition from my husband’s family)—and start sharing stories about the elves on their friends’ shelves.

Today, as I paid for my haircut, the nice cashier even asked me about him. Did you get your Elf on the Shelf out yet? She asked as if it’s a real thing that everyone, everywhere does this time of year, like sending cards or overeating.

I started this thing and now I can’t find my way out.

If left up to me, the elf on our doorknob would just hang there all season. When pressed, I’d come up with some story about how he broke, or could just relay reports to Santa through thought. These ideas seem no less plausible than the “real” story.

But it is not left up to me, and so the elf will move tonight just like he did last night and just like his companion book says he will continue to do right up to Christmas Eve, because while I’m falling asleep at 8:00 p.m. next to the kids or writing a blog post to complain about the elf’s existence, my husband will plop him on top of the stereo or in a planter or on top of the unread magazines. And in the morning the kids will be excited to find the elf in his new place, and though I’ll smile and say “Cool!” while I turn on a Rat Pack Christmas album and water the tree, I’ll feel sort of bad about both complaining and not taking a more active role in this new and oppressive tradition.

Which just makes me hate that elf even more.


Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer.  Read more of her work at


The Search for God at Radio City

The Search for God at Radio City

By Daisy Alpert Florin


I wanted them to have a sense of belonging that I had never had, to know who they were and to feel proud of being Jewish. But did that mean they couldn’t enjoy the Radio City Christmas Spectacular? 


We were in New York to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and my nine-year-old daughter was confused.

“Why are we going to a Christmas show when we’re not Christian?” Ellie asked me, twirling her penguin earring with two fingers.

I gripped her hand tightly as we made our way through the busy midtown streets. “It doesn’t matter if you celebrate Christmas or not,” I told her. “It’s just a fun thing to do.”

Before the show, we walked over to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Sam, Ellie’s older brother, was blunt: “Why are we here? We’re Jewish.” Later, her 5-year-old brother Oliver declined an invitation to sit on Santa’s lap at a pre-show luncheon. “We celebrate Hanukkah, remember?” he said, loud enough for our whole table to hear.

The show itself was pure Christmas kitsch: high-kicking Rockettes, dancing Santas and speeches about believing in the magic of Christmas. It was the visual equivalent of eating a bag of gummy bears, and I loved it.

On the ride home, I asked Ellie what she thought of the show.

She shrugged her shoulders. “I just don’t like how people make such a big deal about Christmas. There’s no show like that about Hanukkah. I mean, the only show I’ve ever been to that had anything to do with Hanukkah was at camp. It’s not fair.”

“That’s because Christian people dominate,” Sam said from the back seat. “If they made a show like that about Hanukkah, it would be a waste of money because no one would go.”

Ellie looked out the window, a pensive frown on her face. I sensed she was grappling with issues of identity that had been brought up by the winter holidays because just the week before she had been upset after visiting the school book fair.

“Did you know there were twelve books about Christmas and only four about Hanukkah?” she told me when she came home. Her eyes were bright behind her blue glasses.

I told her that Hanukkah is probably the only Jewish holiday the book fair would have any books about and that was most likely because of its chronological connection to Christmas. (This kind of nod to religious equality always annoyed me. I felt the same way when the school orchestra felt the need to play a Hanukkah song at its winter concert, and it was always the Dreidel song. “Thousands of years of history reduced to the Dreidel song,” I would gripe.) Plus, I said, in light of how many Jewish kids went to her public school, I thought four books was a lot.

“It shouldn’t matter how many people there are,” she said. “There are more girls than boys in the world but that doesn’t mean girls are treated any better than boys.”

I could tell she considered this an injustice, and who was I to tell her it wasn’t? If this was her nine-year-old version of identity politics, more power to her.

But it got me thinking about what it meant to raise Jewish children, especially at Christmas. Ellie’s nascent sense of persecution was not something I could relate to because I had grown up celebrating Christmas. I was raised by a Jewish father and a Swedish mother but was not really part of either culture; we didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays or speak Swedish. Neither of my parents was religious, so our version of Christmas included a tree, gingerbread house and stockings, not Jesus or the Virgin Mary. (Easter was much the same: no resurrection, just jelly beans.) My husband, Ken, had grown up in an observant Jewish family and when we got married, I converted to Judaism and stopped formally celebrating Christmas.

Ken and I wanted our children to feel connected to religion in a way neither of us had growing up. We wanted being Jewish to mean something to them so, from an early age, we encouraged them to self-identify as Jews and sent them to Hebrew school, Jewish preschool and Jewish camps. I wanted them to have a sense of belonging that I had never had, to know who they were and to feel proud of being Jewish. But did that mean they couldn’t enjoy the Radio City Christmas Spectacular? That was something I hadn’t considered.

When the kids were younger, they had asked lots of questions about Christmas, wondering why Santa Claus didn’t come to their house and why we couldn’t have a Christmas tree. What made it more confusing was learning that I had celebrated Christmas as a child. “You mean, you get to choose?” Sam asked me once.

I didn’t always know the best way to answer these questions because, to be honest, I was also grappling with what it meant to give up the traditions of my childhood. I had no model for celebrating Hanukkah so for a few years, I kind of winged it. But with time, I thought we had created Hanukkah traditions that were meaningful and joyous, while keeping the holiday in perspective. I never tried to make Hanukkah the “Jewish Christmas” because such comparisons felt phony to me. I wanted just being Jewish to be enough for them, and for me.

Now that the kids are older, they have accepted that we don’t celebrate Christmas and have a better understanding of their identities as Jews. But it seems that with that process has come a kind of hardening toward Christmas. Instead of viewing it with wonder, they see it as something they have to resist. If Ellie sees Christmas as an aggressive force that could lay bare her identity as an outsider, I could understand how watching the Christmas Spectacular—and her Jewish mother smiling and clapping along—could be destabilizing.

That feeling I could relate to. As a child, I had often been confused by my dual identity. I wasn’t really Christian or Jewish but somewhere—or perhaps nowhere—in between. I had wanted something different for my children which was why I had chosen to give them a strong religious identity, at least to start out with. But while I was able to embrace the parts of Christmas that weren’t religious, like Santa and the Rockettes, Ellie found this difficult because she was still understanding what it meant to be part of a religious minority. Maybe one day she would be able to enjoy the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, but today was not that day.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer and mother of three. Her essays and stories have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Kveller, Halfway Down the Stairs and Mamalode, among other publications. Visit her at

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When Judy Blume Told My Kids There’s No Santa

When Judy Blume Told My Kids There’s No Santa


When the kids were seven and nearly-nine, Judy Blume brought it all to a crashing end. Or at least, I’d like to think the blame was hers.


Unpacking the Christmas decorations, I pulled out the small crocheted “I BELIEVE IN SANTA” pillow that Liddy loves so much and handed it to her. I watched closely as she walked around the house with it – she finds a new spot for it every year – and felt relief when she ultimately placed it in the entryway, smiling to herself a little grimly. At least, I thought, She didn’t refuse to put it up.

When my kids were tiny I was on the fence about how to handle the Santa story. It’s true that I spent my own early years as a firm believer and had many magical Christmases as a result. But as an adult, a little bit of cynicism crept in. We were lying to our kids, and to what end? On top of that, in our community, we’re surrounded by families with different traditions. Should kids who weren’t waking up to a bounty of gifts under a glittery evergreen be expected to play along?

But I came around to the Santa idea, in part, because of some convenient research I came across tying this kind of believing to the development of abstract but essential emotions like love and empathy. And once I saw Brennan and Liddy respond with such joy to the idea of Santa, I embraced it. I held back only a little: I never pretended a costumed red crusader was the real deal. I didn’t put out milk and cookies. And when challenged I fell back on vague non-answers like, “If you believe, he’ll come.”

Then, when the kids were seven and nearly-nine, Judy Blume brought it all to a crashing end. Or at least, I’d like to think the blame was hers.

I was reading aloud to them from Superfudge when we came to the part where Peter admonishes his parents for letting Fudge continue to believe, and Peter’s mom admits that “sooner or later, he’ll have to learn that Santa is just an idea.” The words came out of my mouth so fast that I didn’t have time to auto-correct, and then I had two stunned kids to answer to. I first stammered out a weak explanation that involved Ms. Blume trying to include families who didn’t celebrate Christmas.

“Or maybe she doesn’t believe in Santa,” I said then, ridiculously. “But I do.”

So I was already wondering if that Christmas would be our last in the I-believe camp when we spent Thanksgiving with my family. Afterward, my sister called me with a confession: “I’m afraid Jake might have told Brennan there’s no Santa,” she said.

“Oh well,” I shrugged it off. “I think we were already headed in that direction.”

And that’s where things stood when I overheard Brennan tell two brothers in the neighborhood, “Guess what? Santa’s not real.” I ordered Brennan into his bedroom, furious: “You might be too old to believe in Santa, Brennan,” I said. “But it’s not fair for you to ruin it for other kids.”

Brennan’s eyes grew wide, then teary. “There’s really no Santa?” he said. “I was just pranking them! I was about to tell them I was only joking.” He looked about as sick as I felt.

I told my sister that Jake hadn’t ruined Santa for Brennan. I had. And I tried to give Brennan the speech I’d read about, where you say now it’s his turn to be his little sister’s Santa. As if there’s fun to be had watching your sister open gifts delivered by flying reindeer as you sit with your pile ordered from Amazon Prime by lame moms and dads.

And then there was the question of Liddy.

She was relentless. “Tell me,” she implored, over and over again. I’d start to say, “If you believe -” and she’d say, “Tell me the truth!”

So eventually I did. And she cried,

“But you asked me to tell you the truth,” I said.

“Well now you ruined it!” she answered, weeping.

We spent that Christmas at my mother’s an eight-hour drive away. I’d sent all gifts ahead of time and my mom and I stayed up late wrapping them and arranging them under her tree. In the morning, when Liddy opened a life-sized golden retriever that would require a seat of its own on the ride home, my husband asked, “Where did that come from?” with a perceptible note of distress.

“I have no idea,” I said, trying to shirk the blame.

Liddy overheard and it was all the encouragement she needed. “I know who it came from,” she said. She hugged what would become one of her all-time favorite Santa gifts and her eyes flashed in a challenge to me, Judy Blume and anyone else trying to dampen her Christmas spirit. “You might not believe. But I still do.”


Photo by Megan Dempsey

The Day I Made Santa Claus Cry

The Day I Made Santa Claus Cry

By Michele Turk

Santa Art“Santa!” my brothers and I screamed, racing to answer the door on Christmas Eve.

Santa Claus stepped into our foyer and handed us each a red mesh stocking filled with sweets. But it wasn’t the presents that we awaited eagerly year after year; it was his presence; Santa right in our home in a small farming town in New Jersey. Santa knew us by name and sometimes even our ages, give or take a couple of years. It made us feel special.

He looked as authentic as any mall Santa with a perfectly rotund belly, except he had the shoulders and gait of a linebacker. It did strike us as odd, even as children, that after he emptied his meager bag of candy, Santa would sit down at the kitchen table with my father and drink Scotch. Their banter seemed familiar. We didn’t question their intimacy or the visits, or how Santa could take time out of his busy flight after dark on Christmas Eve. We believed.

Until the year I was 9-years-old, and poor Santa had so many glasses of Dewar’s he passed out on the floor of the family room in front of the fireplace. When my parents’ were in another room, my 6-year-old brother, Mickey, poked Santa’s stomach. Then Mickey climbed atop the protruding belly and began to surf. Santa didn’t budge. My oldest brother PJ, age 10, and I stared at Mickey jumping up and down on Santa’s belly; our eyes as wide as Cindy Lou Who. Then we all took turns jumping off of Santa’s belly and diving onto the brown shag carpet. We giggled, then howled with laughter. Then, in a daring act of defiance, PJ removed the white beard, revealing what we had long suspected; our annual visitor was my father’s older brother, Frank.

*  *  *

Uncle Frank lived in a trailer park in Vineland, about a half hour from our home, and on the few occasions we did visit him, usually on a Sunday drive, it was uncomfortable and awkward for everyone. His tiny mobile home was a fraction of the size of our three-bedroom ranch house, which seemed like a mansion in comparison. I didn’t understand how he could live like that, while we lived in such comfort just a car ride away.

Every Christmas Day, we joined my mother’s sister and her family for dinner at my grandparents’ house a block away. My grandmother set a formal table and even the children drank from Waterford crystal glasses.

My father was the son of a farmer whose mother died of breast cancer when my father was 6 and Uncle Frank was 8.  My father married the richest girl in town, my mother, and her mother did not approve of Uncle Frank or his lifestyle so Uncle Frank was never once invited to Christmas dinner or any holiday at her house.

“What a shame, what happened to him,” was all I ever heard my grandmother say, shaking her head as she passed bread around the dining room table packed with thirteen of us.

I remember feeling sorry for my dad because he spent every holiday with my mother’s family, but I never dared ask why we couldn’t squeeze one more around the table. I learned later that my father gave Santa a little gift every Christmas, and he “loaned” him plenty of other money over the years. I’m still not sure that made up for allowing him to spend Christmas alone.

When relatives looked at pictures of my uncle, without fail they shook their heads, and said the same thing:  “He was so handsome, what a shame, what happened to him.”

Even now, when I look at pictures taken at my parents’ wedding in 1961, it’s hard to believe that it’s the same man smiling back. It’s still a bit shocking to see the photograph of my parents seated in their car, with Uncle Frank, the best man, on the outside, leaning in. His movie star good looks and seemingly translucent blue eyes, vivid even in the black and white pictures, are what those older folks remember, not the aging alcoholic with a Kris Kringle belly that he’d become.

In my later years, I wondered, how Uncle Frank had turned into that drunken Santa impostor passed out on our floor. My father didn’t speak about Uncle Frank much, and they grew apart, but I think he loved him for the boy and young man he once was—an all-state football player whose college career was somehow derailed. He ended up working construction, never married and didn’t have any children.

I was a senior in college when Uncle Frank died of liver failure at age 55.. My mother always blamed “the bar,” a local watering hole my father and his brother owned in the 1950s. I think it had more to do with growing up without a mother. My father had been rescued by my mother, or more accurately, my mother’s father, who gave him a job at his insurance and real estate company. My parents created a family, one whose children believed in Santa Claus, but knew he’s a mere mortal who enjoys Dewar’s on chilly December nights.

*  *  *

After Mickey removed the beard, Uncle Frank woke up, and began to cry.

“They know who I am,” he said, over and over.

My brothers and I had no idea what to do. We looked at my parents, who were also speechless.

I felt immediate remorse, knowing we had ruined Christmas for Santa.

Michele Turk is a writer and writing instructor in Connecticut. She is co-editor of the new book, Ink Stained: Essays by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Class of 1992.


Losing My Religion

Losing My Religion


doubtWhen my son lost his innocence in the back seat of our beat-up Volvo station wagon, I never dreamed he’d take me down with him. I’m not talking about his virginity–he’s only eight. I’m talking about the Big Guy in the red suit.

“Come on, Mom,” he said one afternoon in the dwindling days of the year, having just observed that everything Santa had brought fit perfectly, was the right color, and had appeared item for item on his wish list, all without benefit of a single flake of snow falling to the ground. “It’s you and Dad, isn’t it? It just doesn’t make sense the other way.”

No, it doesn’t make sense, not by the time you’re in the second grade. I swallowed, met his glance in the rearview mirror, and bravely gave my little speech. Santa was something his father and I did as a present, a little magic at a dark time of the year, a lark, not a lie. After a few more questions (did we actually pay for all that stuff? we went to the store and just bought it all for him and his brother?) and a few bittersweet seconds of silence, he put his hands over his ears and wailed, “Am I going to be able to forget about this by next Christmas?”

It’s hard watching your firstborn reach the Age of Reason.

From there, of course, the clock was ticking on the whole childhood fantasy trip. “Easter Bunny?” he mouthed at me at breakfast a few mornings later when his little brother was distracted dissecting an orange. I made a slashing motion across my throat. “Tooth fairy?” he asked a couple of nights after that as I was shooing him into bed. “Sorry, dude.” Would he still get the money when his teeth fell out, he wanted to know. Yes, he’d still get the money.

“Anything else?” he said, a little sharply, pulling up the covers. I did a quick mental survey of all the unmagical truths he still has to uncover on his own: that his father sneaks cigarettes late at night on the back patio, that the Red Sox might never win the World Series, that there’s very little we can do to keep him truly safe in the world. “No,” I said. “That’s it. I swear.”

That’s not true, though. There is another Big Guy who’s taking the fall in our house these days, the one who wears white robes: God. As I watched my son parry and counter and feint and finally attack the Santa story head-on, I was trying to impose some logic on my own perception of the world, but coming up short every time.

The stories that tripped me up weren’t about elves or reindeer or nighttime circumnavigation of the globe, but news stories, mother stories, stories so unimaginable to me as a parent that they hit the brain and bounced off again, rejected, before burrowing in deep.

Stories like the Bosnian woman forced onto her hands and knees by soldiers and raped repeatedly in front of her children before being burned alive along with them. Stories like the Kurdish mothers, one gassed by Iraqi helicopters along with her family, who all die from the poison; another who watches from the window of an ancient, overcrowded prison as wild dogs tear apart the body of her six-year-old son. The starving Afghani couple, unable to get their extended family across a freezing mountain pass, who finally decide to abandon their young children in favor of their elderly parents.

And that’s not even counting the stateside stories, the planes and the towers, the children abducted or abused or drowned by their own mothers or left to die the most trivial kind of death in a hot car in a beauty-salon parking lot.

Are all these suffering people bad? The Croatians, the Kurds, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Rwandans, the New Yorkers–are they being punished? And the people who live in my town, many of them my friends, with the Land Rovers and the leg waxes, horses in the barn and granite in the kitchen and money in the bank (real money, not the stock-option kind), are they good? Or is it rather that everything that happens to us is just fucking dumb luck?

Where is God in all of this? Truly, for the first time in my life, I can’t say, not for sure.

Call it the Age of Reason, Part II. Just as my son had no choice but to admit, finally, that you can’t make brand-name toys in the vast void of the Arctic and that mammals don’t fly more than fifteen feet at a pop, I can’t stop wondering if God isn’t just a childish response to the staggering random cruelty of the world. Sing along, everyone: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good . . . ” I am afraid I know already how this story ends, in the back seat of a car with your hands over your ears, trying to forget.

Believe me, this is not where I expected to be in the middle of my life. I’ve always thought of myself as a “rowing toward God” kind of girl, to borrow a phrase from the poet Anne Sexton, someone who would naturally grow closer to God in a more intense and personal way as an adult. And certainly motherhood upped the religious ante for me, with its miscarriages and forceps deliveries and those woozy first few hours postpartum, the holiest times of my life, when pain and joy and Percoset and pure gratitude toward the Almighty course in equal cc’s through the veins.

But now? Only the shock of suddenly coming up empty-handed, or maybe more exactly, empty-hearted. It’s lonely with no God to be grateful toward, it’s disheartening to think there might not be justice any more divine than what we get right here and now, and it hurts me to admit that I’m not the best person to be answering my own children’s existential questions, not right now at least.

To be specific: Santa Boy’s little brother, a dreamy, philosophical four-year-old, wants the lowdown on the Higher Power–how does God know we’re being good? Can he see? Does he have eyes? What color? And most urgently, if God loves him, why won’t God pick up his bicycle and drop it down in the library parking lot so he doesn’t have to pedal all that way himself?

On and on it goes, with me thinking guiltily of the parenting books that brightly encourage readers to “State your values!” to their offspring. What if your values are nothing but a big muddy mess at the moment? After a chat session with his mom, my poor kid is left thinking of God as some combination of Mother Nature, Lady Luck, and the Statue of Liberty who watches impassively as we scurry over the face of the Earth like bugs.

This is not good. I leave him for now to the safety of his Episcopal preschool, with its easy-to-take, Jesus-loves-me-that-I-know catechism.

My own catechism is a bit more of a problem. I know I need to read the believers and the doubters and the born-agains and the late converts, sift through Bonhoeffer and Freud and Lewis and Merton and Nietzsche and Pascal and work through all this. And I know I’m not the first person on the planet to have these doubts: Humans have tortured and murdered one another, and people have questioned the existence of God, since the world began.

As my friend Walter (cultural Jew, current atheist, practicing Unitarian, former philosophy professor, father of two) diplomatically puts it, my big spiritual crisis is completely trite by even undergraduate standards. What’s more, he points out, only those who once believed in a personal, intercessionary kind of God can mourn his absence. So I might think about choosing a new religion altogether on the premise that my problem isn’t with God but Christianity and its insistence on a sympathetic, human divinity.

Of course, I could give up religion altogether. History is filled with examples of intelligent, ethical people who lived lives of moral human decency without believing in a greater power. But then I’d have to give up the New Testament stories that I really do love, and I’m not ready for that, any more than my son wants to stop listening for the sound of hoofs on the roof.

The nativity is one hell of a good story, whether you’re a believer or not–the frightened, unwed, pregnant teenager, the angel at the door, the bureaucracy, the poverty, the animals, the shepherds, the star. My sons’ birthdays bookend the Yuletide, so I spent Christmas one year sitting in the pew on a pile of stitches with a tiny newborn in my arms and another, a few years later, being viciously kicked in the ribs by a fully grown nine-month fetus. It’s hard not to feel a little closer to donkey-riding, stable-birthing Mary–the woman or the myth–after you’ve had a few babies yourself.

From there, it’s not a big leap to internalize Mary’s anguish as the grieving mother of a torture victim. And, weirdly, it’s that image that finally offers me some sort of temporary peace as I agonize for the women of the world and all the pain they endure watching their children suffer and die, suffer and die, over and over.

It seems that when it happens, you can go mad, you can kill yourself, or you can try to change the world in your child’s memory. So maybe Mary, always annoyingly painted as the quiet, uncomplaining woman in blue at Jesus’s feet, maybe Mary chose the last option. Maybe Christianity started not with an unbelievable rising from the dead but with a mother’s entirely understandable search for meaning in her son’s murder. Think about it: Mary as the first Million Mom marcher, the prototypical Mother Against Drunk Driving, the godmother of victim’s rights.

So what if religion is nothing more than a way for mothers to insist some good come of their children’s suffering, a way for humanity to pay respect to the fierce human spirits that have gone before us? That’s enough. I don’t know about God, but mother power? That’s one story that still works for me.

Author’s Note: This piece is a complete departure from anything I have published before. Usually I work fast and funny (or try for it, anyway). This one took about eight months of almost continuous rewrites, and I was at least partly miserable the whole time. Curiously, now that it’s done, I feel better, as though God and I had a big fight and cleared the air. Who knows. As Anne Sexton says in the last line of her poem, “This story ends with me still rowing.”

Brain, Child (Winter 2003)

Art by Elizabeth Hannon

The “S” Word

The “S” Word

By Kathy Leonard Czepiel

For years I dreaded the big talk about the “S” word.

Not sex, no siree. Santa. I feared the awful consequences of confessing to my children that I had fabricated a gigantic lie, assisted by almost every other adult in the world, and fed it to them repeatedly over their most impressionable years.

It all started innocently enough. I grew up in a Christmas-loving family. My father is a minister, so the holiday always began with the four Sundays in Advent and gathered momentum through that dark first month of winter until it reached the climax of a candlelit service on Christmas Eve, at the end of which we’d sing “Joy to the World” and push open the double wooden church doors to the magical night. It was always one of my favorite moments of the year.

Truthfully, my father is also a sucker for Christmas in all its mercantile excess. He begins playing Bing Crosby’s and Nat King Cole’s Christmas albums on Thanksgiving Day, and he actually enjoys going to the mall and being bandied about in a crowd of frantic shoppers. Every year when we were kids, we decorated an eight-foot tree full of chatchkas. My mother wove red and green string around the newel post and through the spindles of the stairway banister. She then hung the more than 100 cards we had received as if they were colorful clothes on a line. On Christmas morning, my father made my younger brothers and me wait interminably at the top of those stairs while he set up his movie lights for the same shot, year after year, of us running down in our pajamas to see what Santa had brought. We never spent a lot of money on Christmas, but it was undoubtedly the biggest celebration of the year. So it was only logical that I would want the same for my own children.

My daughters were born in Denver, far from my East Coast hometown. Our ranch house didn’t have a grand staircase to run down, and we didn’t have a bay window for an eight-foot tree. We didn’t even have a fireplace, but Santa found us just the same. It was quite a few years before it occurred to me that I might have Christmased myself into a tight corner. As my daughter Ellie turned seven, I thought of the summer day when, at that same age, I’d visited my father in his study and he’d taken me on his lap and told me the truth—about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, all at once. I’d cried. Even as an adult, I’d never understood why he’d felt compelled to tell me at so young an age. Until I had a seven-year-old of my own.

Seven-year-olds get jokes. They can tell you obscure facts, like the difference between magma and lava that maybe you knew when you were seven but sure as heck don’t remember now. They understand injustice and feel compassion, though they don’t always exercise it with their siblings. They are fully developed people with their own opinions and their own personalities who just need a lot more life experience in order to successfully navigate the world. To dupe such a person with a story no self-respecting thinker would believe had begun to seem downright deceitful. But I didn’t have the heart to do anything about it. Not when Ellie was seven. Instead, I did what many mothers of my generation do in a time of crisis: research.

I began an informal survey into how people had found out the truth about Santa Claus and whether it had permanently scarred them. I asked the college freshmen whom I teach. Some of them smiled and shrugged. One girl said she was fourteen before she found out. One got a faraway look and said, “Yeah. That was pretty shocking.” I thought I might be sick.

Then my childhood friend Dan came to visit. He has three kids, and seven years more parenting experience than I have. So, I asked him, how did breaking the news about Santa Claus go in his house? “We never really started the Santa thing,” he said. “The presents always came from us.” If only I’d had such foresight.

I persisted and asked how he’d found out about Santa Claus. He and his younger brother, when they were six and eight, wondered how Santa Claus fit through the pipe of their wood stove. Budding scientists, they devised a test. They set a trip wire inside the stove. But Dan is also a philosopher, always considering the cosmic consequences of human action, so he told his mother. She, of course, tripped the wire. And, for extra effect, left a single black boot stuck in the stove. This was her fatal error, for Dan’s brother recognized the boot from their basement. As he told me this story, Dan nodded thoughtfully. “I think he was pretty angry with Mom for a while after that,” he said.

Concurrent with my anecdotal research, I got online and read up on the real Santa Claus. I learned that he was Saint Nicholas of Myra, in what is now Turkey. He is remembered for his many acts of generosity and kindness, particularly toward children, but the story that seems to have begun the Santa Claus myth is about a poor family with three daughters whose father could not afford a dowry for them. As each daughter came of age, Nicholas put enough gold for her dowry into a sack and secretly tossed it through her window at night, securing her future. I thought about how to tell this story to Ellie and bought two beautifully illustrated books to help me. I thought about telling her that Santa Claus lives on in all our hearts, yada, yada, except I knew that eight-year-olds—because by now she was eight—have a healthy skepticism of sentimental metaphors.

That Christmas, Ellie was missing both her front teeth. Aside from the obvious song sung that season, I was terrified of the domino effect. If she found out about the Tooth Fairy, well, it was all over with. I thought she was on to us when she decided not to leave one of her teeth for pickup. But on Christmas Eve, she was heartbreakingly worried about getting to bed on time so as not to discourage jolly old Saint Nick from showing up.

It was easy to ignore the whole thing through the rest of the winter, and into the spring and summer. In the fall, Ellie turned nine, and then it was Christmas again. Surely she must have heard about Santa at school by now. I resolved to tell her the truth if she asked. One morning I asked her younger sister Meggie if she was going to be brave enough to sit on Santa’s lap this year, then offhandedly said to Ellie, “Do you still care about visiting Santa?” My hopes that she would casually shrug her shoulders in that too-cool preteen way were dashed when she smiled shyly and ducked her head and said, “Yeah.” And she did. She sat right up there on his lap with the biggest darned smile full of adult teeth.

I continued conducting my totally unscientific survey while my beautifully illustrated books about Santa Claus moldered in the attic. My cousin Linda, at the age of 37, reported she still believed in Santa. “Have you ever seen a million dollars?” she asked. “Just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” She had recently become a mother herself and had not yet had the illusion-dashing experience of actually placing the gifts from Santa Claus under the tree herself, so I made a mental note to check back later and see how her faith was holding up.

Then, the following spring, Meggie lost her first tooth, and I had a moment of brilliance. We all helped her tuck the tooth under her pillow. When she was asleep, I crept into Ellie’s room and whispered conspiratorially, “You know the Tooth Fairy is pretend, right?” It was dark, and I couldn’t see whether this was news or not. “Come on,” I said. “You can be the Tooth Fairy tonight.” Together we sneaked into Meggie’s room, and Ellie, frightened and proud, slid the tooth out and the money in. Now, I thought, there’s a long summer for this information to stew. If there’s no Tooth Fairy, then there’s no . . .

Towards the end of the summer, we had the beginning of the other “S” talk. Some of the fifth-grade girls were starting to look pretty womanly, and I figured they were going to be shown some thirty-year-old movie with cartoon birds and bees flying around in it. This conversation went fine, but on Saint Nicholas, we hadn’t made much progress.

Ellie turned ten, and Christmas approached again. I was determined to tell her this time, but my calm friend Maureen, mother of four, talked me down. “They’ll figure it out themselves,” she assured me. (She had found out by snooping in the attic as a kid.) I trust Maureen’s judgment, so I let the holiday pass. Again.

What finally did it was the baby stoplight. Ellie and I were spring cleaning. It was the kind of cleaning where you pull out every dusty little scrap of construction paper and abandoned birthday party favor from under the bed and behind the bookcases. On Ellie’s closet floor, I found the baby stoplight.

The December Ellie was three, when we still lived in Denver and hadn’t yet returned East, she told us all she wanted for Christmas was a baby stoplight. At first we thought this was novel and cute, but over the course of several weeks, her answer to the question “What do you want for Christmas?” never varied. All she really wanted was a baby stoplight. We asked every probing question imaginable to figure out what she had in mind. Was it for her baby dolls, or a real baby? Or was it just a “little” stoplight? Was there one at daycare? Ellie responded with unconcerned silence. Santa would know what she meant.

I was eight months pregnant and in no shape to be taking on secret craft projects on the guest room floor, but finally I resigned myself to the situation and got to work. I poked a dowel up the center of a cylindrical oatmeal container and housed it in a slightly larger box with three holes cut in it. After studying local traffic lights, I even fashioned Dixie cups into little sun shades to glue over the holes in my box. I painted the whole thing black, and on the oatmeal canister, I glued circles in red, yellow, and green at different points so Ellie could turn the dowel to make any one of the colors appear in the correct window. On Christmas morning, there it was, the homemade baby stoplight under the Christmas tree.

“Is that what you meant?” we asked. She nodded her head and turned the dowel knob. Damn, that Santa Claus sure was smart.

Now the baby stoplight had been excavated from the darkest corner of Ellie’s closet. She was ten years old, and I’m not even sure she still knew what it was, but it had made the cross-country journey and survived all this time, though quite a bit worse for the wear. I was moved by the sight of it. I sat on the rug and turned the wobbly dowel.

“I want to tell you the story about this,” I said. “It’s one of my favorite Christmas stories. But it might bum you out.” I was in it now. Then I whispered, “Daddy and I are Santa Claus.”

She smiled at me. “I know.”

The kids at school had said stuff, of course. And then there was the website from NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (, for those still mired in the Santa predicament) that tracks Santa’s journey around the world every Christmas Eve. As Ellie pointed out, it’s computer animated.

No need to bring out the books, the “Santa was once a real person” stories. She had grown into the knowledge of the myth herself. I wondered whether later she would have a private moment of sad surprise, but if she did, she didn’t show it. She’d already stepped over the threshold into a world in which she knew a thing or two about politics, race, religion, history, and human cruelties and frailties. I was proud of my growing-up kid, who had sat up late on election night to watch the returns and color in a map, just as I had with my dad in 1976. I was proud of the research she’d been doing on pollution and her insistence that our family be more conscious of its environmental impact. I was proud of the conversations she’d had with friends about differences and getting along and of the questions she was asking the world. She knew it was time to leave pretend Santa behind where he belongs, in the world of “little kids.”

But then I got to thinking about something else that had happened during that baby stoplight Christmas in Denver. And I realized that for the past four years I’d been so worried about the falsehood that I’d lost touch with the truth.

Eight months pregnant with Meggie that Christmas, I’d felt a brand new kinship with Mary of Nazareth, who rode pregnant on the back of a donkey across the desert to Bethlehem, while I wasn’t even willing to get on an airplane. I’d sat in church on Christmas Eve singing those deeply familiar carols as my baby rolled inside me. (That line in “Silent Night”? About “how silently the wondrous gift is given”? A guy wrote that.) The memory from that Christmas which stood out most was of the little party that Ellie’s daycare provider threw. All the children and their parents gathered in her finished basement, and then Santa Claus came ho-ho-ing down the stairs. Oh, the astonished looks on the kids’ faces! In his big sack (usually a black garbage bag) he had something special for each of them. On his way out the door that year, Santa saw me standing there—I was hard to miss—and he reached out his white-gloved hand and touched my giant belly. “Good luck, Mama, with your baby,” he said. In that moment all my adult information fell away, and I felt an incredible surge of happiness as I basked in the fact: Santa Claus had blessed my baby.

Chalk it up to hormones or some powerful psychological hangover from childhood, but for me, that moment was enchanted, as real as the moment when, at five years old, I ran into the living room in the glare of my father’s movie lights to see the baby doll I’d dreamed of waiting under the tree. This is a truth I cannot explain to Ellie, or even to myself. It speaks to the power of storytelling and shared secrets and our ability to inhabit places beyond the purported limits of our world. Being a kid is like that, and who better than Santa to help us remember, even as adults, how to get there? Maybe my cousin Linda, the believer, was on to something. Maybe once in a while, if we let him, Saint Nicholas can still toss a gift through our grownup windows.

About the Author: Kathy Leonard Czepiel’s debut novel, A Violet Season (Simon & Schuster, 2012), was named one of the best fiction books of the year by Kirkus Reviews. The recipient of a 2012 creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Czepiel teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters. Learn more about Kathy at


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