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A Berkeley Santa Story

“Do you know what Santa looks like?”  

The older woman looked down at the little girl, who stood at her side. They may have been holding hands. 

I turned to look at them as I walked by.  What an odd question. 

The pair had stopped along Monterey Avenue to admire the Christmas display on a group of houses across the street.  It was extravagant, by Berkeley standards.   A  veritable forest of blinking lights, twinkling in the dark. 

I saw what had prompted the question:  That portrait of Santa Claus on the door of one of the homes. 

Maybe this was a prelude to the inevitable “Do-you-believe-in-Santa” conversation.  

My own parents had sidestepped that question for as long as they could. 

“Well, WE believe in Santa Claus.”  That was the party line, whenever I pressed them for answers.  How could the same Santa be in all those stores at the same time?  Why did all the other kids say he was just pretend?  Eventually, I got a straight answer from my parents.  At least there was some compensation.  I got to be a big girl, who helped maintain the mystery for my younger siblings. 

But the conversation I’d just overheard didn’t seem to be about belief.  The older woman sounded genuinely curious about the little girl’s state of awareness.  Did she recognize the figure of Santa Claus?   Maybe this was about to become a teaching moment.   Like during our Hanukkah dinner, when we showed one of our son’s non-Jewish friends how to light the Menorah.  

I tried to imagine how a child in the United States, who looked to be about five or six, could fail to recognize the figure of Santa Claus.  The woman (her grandmother?) sounded and looked like an American of European heritage.   I didn’t get a close look at the little girl, but there was nothing to suggest that her own background was any different. 

Perhaps she was visiting from another country.  Still, how could she not know about Santa? 

These days, Christmas is celebrated as a secular holiday in India and Japan.  I hear that Jerusalem has the biggest Christmas display in years.  Christmas has become so much a part of mainstream consumer culture that it's hard to escape.   The commercialization can be oppressive for everyone:  observant Christians, people of other faiths, and those of no faith.   

Perhaps the older woman was just trying to be neutral, not wanting to make assumptions about someone else's stance on Santa Claus.   It was hard to imagine that this little girl had been so insulated from the larger culture that she wouldn't recognize the iconic figure.

"Do you know what Santa looks like?" 

It seemed like an only-in-Berkeley moment.