It was in 1998 that my son, Sammy, broke out of his cocoon and started kindergarten at our neighborhood school. Up until then, he had spent his entire tiny life surrounded by Jews.
Having left his Jewish preschool behind only a few months prior, he had little knowledge of his own minority status in the world, not to mention in our South Bay community. But that didn't matter to him, at least as far as I knew.
The phone rang on that cold December morning, the week before school let out for Christmas -- I mean winter break.
"Hello," Sammy's teacher said. "It's Susie Clark."
As any good Jewish mother would, I immediately thought that Sammy had fallen and cracked his head open.
"Do you have a minute?" she asked.
"Of course," I replied. "Is anything wrong?"
"No, no. Well sort of," she said.
This could not be good.
"It's just that, well, Sammy's been," she stammered, "having a little trouble since we started our holiday unit."
"Why?" I asked. "Doesn't he get it?"
"Oh, he gets it. He gets it quite well. The problem is that...."
I sat down and waited for the bomb to drop.
"He's been telling his classmates that there's no such thing as Santa."
"Oh, that's awful!" I exclaimed. What was I supposed to say?
"I'm not sure what to do," the teacher said. "I've been teaching almost 20 years, and this is a first. I've gotten calls from two mothers already."
I had visions of furious mothers beating me with wooden nutcrackers.
"Gee, I'm sorry," I replied as I began to sweat.
"I actually don't spend that much time on holiday stuff, only the last week before break," the teacher said. "And we do Chanukah, too. Obviously, we're making little Christmas trees, Santas, candy canes, wreaths, but I have templates for dreidels and stars. My other Jewish students use some of the Christmas designs, but not Sammy. He'll do only Chanukah. Yesterday, we ran out of blue construction paper. He wasn't happy."
I pictured his indignant pout as he made a red-and-green dreidel.
"I'll talk to him," I said. "Don't worry, there won't be any more rumors about Santa being a fake."
"Thanks." Her tone implied that she wasn't quite finished. "And just one more thing."
I sat down again.
"Sammy's had a little trouble with Robbie lately."
"What? He adores Robbie!" Robbie was Sammy's best buddy since the toddler class at preschool.
"You know Robbie's mom is Jewish and his dad's not," the teacher said. "So Robbie's taken the position that he's both Jewish and Christian, but Sammy keeps insisting that he's all Jewish. They really got into it yesterday."
"I'll take care of it," I said.
I hung the phone up quietly and wondered if living in a predominately non-Jewish area was bothering Sammy. For me, having grown up in the Valley, being Jewish was never an issue. I took it for granted that at least half of the kids at school were Jewish. But not where my children lived. The Jews in Palos Verdes were a small group, close-knit and involved but statistically a tiny sliver on the pie chart.
Sammy bounced into the car that afternoon as always. I tried to sound nonchalant.
"Why are you telling kids there's no Santa?" I blurted. So much for nonchalant.
"Because there isn't one," he said.
"And why are you arguing with Robbie about whether he's Jewish or not?"
"Because he's Jewish. He was last year."
It occurred to me then that perhaps there was no problem. My son was clear and content with what he knew to be true.
When we got home, Sammy pulled out his Chanukah cutouts.
"Look what I made." He showed them proudly, even the green dreidel. I gathered him onto my lap and admired his work.
"Sammy, you can't tell the kids about Santa anymore. Some of them really believe in Santa. It's not right for you to spoil it for them."
"But why would they want to believe in something that's not true?"
"Because it's fun," I said. "Because their parents like to pretend and create a story or tradition for their family. We do that, like with the tooth fairy."
His expression changed, and a little frown formed between his eyebrows. Naturally, a jolly, fat man in a red suit who drags presents down chimneys was absurd, but a little fairy who trades money for teeth was perfectly logical. There went my mother of the year award.
"How do you know there's no Santa anyway?" I asked.
"Mickey told me."
Of course. The older brother always tells.
"Well, do you think you could just not talk about Santa for the next few days?"
He nodded his head and began taping his artwork to the front windows for all the world to see that in our house, we celebrated Chanukah.
During those last few days before Christmas -- I mean winter break -- I reminded Sammy to keep his knowledge and opinions to himself. Friday afternoon came with great relief -- no more irate parents calling the teacher and no mothers chasing after me.
Six Chanukahs have come and gone since that December, and Sammy wrapped up his elementary school career six months ago. On the last day of school in June, we ran into his kindergarten teacher. She hugged Sammy. The little boy who had spoiled Santa was up to her nose.
"Sammy, I'll never forget that Christmas with you in my class," she said. "And I think of you every year when I pull out my Chanukah cutouts."
As for Sammy, his Jewish identity, established way back in preschool, is as solid as the blacktop where he used to play ball.
Robbie eventually became all Jewish, just as Sammy had insisted.
And the tooth fairy, well, she continued to visit us until the very last tooth had been hidden underneath the pillow.