After dinner I got all dressed for bed, I knelt down and asked Mom what do you say when you pray? Mom thought about it and then said, “Here’s one. ‘Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’ ”
I was horrified. This is what I was supposed to say to feel better? If I should die before I wake? Were they serious? I’d rather take my chances with Eye the Monster.
That was the last time I said that prayer. My fear increased. Now I was certain I would die in my sleep and be on the Naughty list. It was under this dark cloud of circumstances that I encountered my first conspiracy theory: the possible collusion between Mom, Dad, and Santa Claus.
We were Jewish and by all rights should not have celebrated Christmas. We also did not have a chimney, which should have made any Santa contact problematic. But we lived in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, home to exactly three Jewish families. My mother and father were very sensitive to anti-Semitism and were fearful that other children would taunt us if we appeared different. But secretly, I think Mom and Dad were afraid of our being “different” whether we were taunted or not. “Different” was not something that was considered good back in the late 1950’s. “Different” was not the proud banner we wave today. Back then being “different” had to be remedied.
Mom and Dad decided to go with the Santa scenario and give us presents on Christmas morning. That way we wouldn’t have to feel like outcasts at school. However, it wasn’t going to be as simple as celebrating Christmas in the good, old-fashioned, non-religious, strictly commercial way—with a tree, presents, carols, and hot cocoa. Mom felt guilty that she was betraying her Jewish roots. As a compromise, we had no tree, and in its place, thanks to a thought process that still baffles me, we got our presents under the dining room table.
Like all children on Christmas we were up at dawn. We raced into the dining room and started crawling in between the chairs under the table, looking in the dark for presents that had our name on them, occasionally banging our heads on the hard mahogany.
I remember once during this era I mustered up the courage to ask Mom the tough questions I had always been afraid to ask: “We have no chimney. What is Santa going to do?” Mom said she put a note out for Santa to use the back door. That disturbed me. It meant either we were leaving our house unlocked, which seemed unsafe, or that Santa had our key, which seemed creepy. I then asked what Santa was going to do without a tree? Mom said Santa was fine putting the presents under the table. I said, “But why? Why would Santa want to crawl under the table to put the presents there? That was a lot of extra work.” Mom said that Santa didn’t mind the work. He just didn’t want us to feel different by not having our presents under something. I said, “Mom, we’re still different. No other kids get presents under a dining room table. And kids who have trees don’t crawl under the tree to get their presents. The presents are around the tree.”
Mom paused to reflect and then did what most people do when they rely on selling a conspiracy theory as a basis for reality: She passed the blame on down the line. She said, “Stepidoors, we wrote Santa about the chimney and the tree and he said leave the door unlocked and he would put the presents under the table. I don’t know why. That’s what he said. That’s where he wanted to leave them.”
Mom’s passing of the buck to Santa worked for a while, or at least until I was 5 ½ and in first grade. My nagging doubts troubled me deeply. I had no one to talk to about it—until one afternoon after school right before the Christmas holidays.