I often have children ask me whether I am real? More philosophically profound when addressed to me as a mother in my workout clothing, more understandable when addressed to me as Ms. Bits N’ Bobs with my brightly colored cloak covered in toys.
I always struggle with the answer. Some children want to believe in the magic all the way, and if I tell them its all just make-believe, the entire experience is lessened. Others are afraid, that if Ms. Bits n’ Bobs is real, that puts everything else into question, as in “does that mean the big bad wolf really can come and get me?”
We are Jewish. That is why I feel it is important to tell you about my first Christmas. For reasons that belie my current parenting angst, when I was eight years old, on a chilly December morning, my parents put me on a plane by myself from Johannesburg to Capetown, so that I could spend a vacation with my step-grandmother, Granny ‘Nita. The two hour plane ride was completely uneventful – I wasn’t kidnapped, didn’t open the emergency doors and dance on the wings (it was tempting) and it didn’t even occur to me to pretend to be a terrorist. Ah innocent days.
Granny ‘Nita met me at the airport with a safe hug and a smile and drove me through the lilac, Jacquaranda tree-lined streets to my step-mother’s childhood home in Bellville – where the mulberry tree overlooked the swimming pool. Over the next few days, hands purple from squishing fresh mulberries into my mouth, I swam off excess energy and played with the newborn puppies of the household.
Christmas was approaching, an event noticeable in our household for eliciting yawns as one of the most boring days of the year. We certainly didn’t celebrate a “Christian” holiday and clearly all the other kids were too busy for play dates on this day.
However, Uncle S. had married a “Christian” and we were going to her family’s home on Christmas day. I was certainly politely curious about Xmas trees, Santa, presents etc… but definitely as an outsider who did not participate in these rituals. The other family was also Afrikaans speaking making the whole experience even more exotic.
As was Granny ‘Nita’s way, I went with her on all her shopping chores. On this particular day, a few days before Christmas, I was to help her find a birthday gift for one of her bridge buddies grandchildren, who fascinatingly enough was around my age.
Now, you know, I was on my best behavior throughout this holiday and today I was so excited to actually be useful. Up and down the glittering aisles of tinsel, Granny ‘Nita and I paraded – was she thinking of something expensive or less so? Granny ‘Nita wasn’t sure – so I pointed out both kinds. Was she close to this child? Should it be a very personal gift? Yes, Granny ‘Nita was really fond of this little girl. Was she a girly girl or more of a tomboy? “A little of both” Granny ‘Nita replied after serious thought.
We didn’t end up purchasing anything that day for the lucky girl. I was quite jealous of her actually, except clearly Granny ‘Nita preferred me as I hadn’t even met this girl yet. I hope that she liked the gifts that I had helped to choose.
Christmas day arrived as uneventful as always. I helped feed the puppies – then off to the Christmas festivities in “Afrikaansland” we went. In South Africa, it was mandatory to learn Afrikaans from Kindergarten upwards. However, aged eight, I’d never heard a bunch of people who actually spoke this language as their native tongue. I’d always just thought of the lesson as an especially useless part of the school day.
At the party, there were at least twenty kids and they were super friendly and welcoming to me – in Afrikaans. I understood NOT a word. I smiled politely.
Then Santa came out. Not from the fireplace, but the door near it. It was Uncle S. – I understood not to tell the secret, not even if I could have in Afrikaans. But I did finally comprehend that it was Jewish men who all played Santa. At least we played some role on Christmas day. He carried, should I say dragged the biggest, furry, red sack I had ever seen. I understood that the childrens’ gifts would be inside and stood aside so that my new found, exuberant, Afrikaans friends could enjoy their bounty. I also understood that there would be no gifts for me as this was not my holiday – in the same way that when you go to someone else’s birthday party, it’s completely acceptable for that child to get gifts but not you.
For although Uncle S. had dressed the role of Santa, clearly the real Santa had dropped the gifts through the chimney that morning and in the same way that G-d spared the Children of Israel at Passover – Santa spared us by passing over our Chimney’s at Christmas.
So, imagine my surprise when Uncle S. “Santa” yells my name with some Afrikaans words sprinkled in, from across the room The sea of jolly, smiling kids parts the way and gift upon gift… upon gift are piled upon me – yes, little Jewish me – from Santa!
Every single gift that I had so thoughtfully suggested to Granny ‘Nita for “that other girl” were oohed and aahed over by my new non-English speaking friends. From a manicure set, to a beautiful doll, a paint set and a snow globe, I got the most gifts out of everyone.
I knew the gifts were from Granny ‘Nita. Clearly, she did too. But we both knew the gifts were officially from Santa. When I asked her how I could say thank you, Granny ‘Nita just said “Keep the magic alive in your life”.
I still have the manicure set and Granny ‘Nita your magic lives on in my heart.