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Answering the ‘Santa question’ when your family doesn’t celebrate Christmas

Santa Claus

Santa Claus Credit: iStock

How do you tell a child he or she won’t be getting presents from Santa? It’s a question many parents on Long Island who don’t celebrate Christmas tackle during the holiday season.

Fariha Ahmed, who’s Muslim, says she lets her children believe Santa Claus is real but tells them he only visits houses of those who celebrate Christmas.

“I didn’t want to tell them he’s not real, because I didn’t want them to go tell their classmates . . . I tell them to give presents to their friends. It’s a happy time. It’s a beautiful time, we should be happy for them.”

Ahmed, 34, started talking to her two children about Santa when they were in kindergarten. Her family lives in Manhasset, where she says most of her neighbors celebrate Christmas, making the all-my-friends-are-celebrating-so-why-can’t-we question difficult to answer.

“[Santa] knows who celebrates and who doesn’t, which houses get presents, and we’re not on that list.”

Like many Muslim parents in her situation, Ahmed reminds her children that while they may not get presents in December, they will be getting presents during the Muslim holiday of Eid, which lands in the summer next year.

“They have to get used to being different.”

For the Rothschild family, Christmas and Santa aren’t as challenging. The Orthodox Jewish family celebrates Hanukkah, so their children receive gifts around December and never believed in Santa.

“When my son was young, maybe 3, we went to one of those places, and he saw someone dressed up like Santa and said, ‘look, Ma, there’s Moses,’ Jordana Rothschild, 37, said. The Plainview resident said the conversation about faith differences is also easier because her children attend an all-Jewish school and have traditions all year round that set them apart from friends outside their community.

“I think adults have their own neuroses. Kids are more accepting and understanding of differences . . . We impose our own baggage on them. I think we’re making it more complicated,” Rothschild said. She said although they don’t celebrate Christmas, hang lights or put out milk and cookies, they still enjoy the festivities.

“People are in such a good mood that it’s contagious.”

Darlene Graham, 42, who is Roman Catholic, says she was deeply saddened when two of her four children were told by classmates that Santa doesn’t exist, because she felt like they were “bullied” into not believing.

The West Babylon resident, who is a children’s entertainer, says she told them, “when kids say there’s no such thing as Santa, it’s because Santa doesn’t come to their house.”

The responsibility for answering the “why” falls on both sides, Graham said, with all parents teaching their children about the different ways people believe.

Jennifer Durham, director of psychology at Adelphi University in Garden City, agrees that it’s important parents don’t avoid the bigger conversation around Santa, the discussion of what makes their family different.

Durham says parents should talk to their children about how those differences manifest in their daily lives — from the food they eat to what they believe — and they are never too young to have that conversation.

“It’s not just a one-shot thing, but needs to be going on all year. This is bigger than just a Santa Claus or Christmas issue. If you’re talking to your children all year long about racial and ethnic differences, then the whole Santa Claus thing is one small part of the whole conversation,” Durham said. She recommends talking to young children about differences, and providing positive reflections of those differences by creating unique traditions.

Sara Siddiqui of Huntington created a tradition for her family in which she buys presents, and even used to decorate a house plant. As a Muslim, she said she’s OK with letting her children take part in the Santa story, but tells them Christmas is actually a time to celebrate Jesus, who is one of the prophets Islam recognizes.

Siddiqui, 46, even has a name for the celebration, “Milad-e-m’Issa Mubarak,” roughly translated from Urdu as “happy birthday, Prophet Jesus.”

Recalling her own childhood experiences, Siddiqui said, “we always had to write something the first thing after we came back from break about what you got, and where you went. I always made stuff up. I don’t know if I’m making it any different for my kids, or what memories I’m creating, or if I’m lying, but we can still have our own traditions and not feel completely left out.”

Graham understands she can’t protect her children’s imaginations forever. But when they do stop believing in Santa, she sits each one down for a talk, explaining that their parents will pick up where Santa left off. In addition, she has her children craft a gift to give to a neighbor.

“We’ve adopted a little tradition: Pick one neighbor, not someone you know, you have to make a present for them.” This year the Graham children made mugs.

“You are their Santa,” she tells them. “How exciting is that? That’s the spirit of Christmas, the feeling of giving.”

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