I grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a predominantly Italian neighborhood. When the holiday decorations went up, there were houses on my block with trees lit up for Christmas in front yards and behind living room windows. Nativity scenes decorated lawns alongside light-up Santa Clauses.
Being Jewish, I was disappointed that there were very few menorahs. Even though I received eight presents for Hanukkah, given one per night, it just wasn’t fair. My friends had beautiful trees with blinking lights and presents brought by a guy in a red suit.
When I was 5, my parents gave in to my constant nagging and took me to the Abraham & Straus department store in Downtown Brooklyn to see Santa. I brought my wish list and the store photographer took a photo of me sitting on Santa’s lap. I just knew Santa would grant my wishes — except for two obstacles: I didn’t have a tree, and I lived in an apartment building, so I had no chimney.
That year, some neighbors purchased a Christmas tree, but it was too tall for their living room. They chopped off the top and, knowing I wanted to celebrate Christmas, gave the top to my family. My treetop had candy canes and dreidels hanging from the branches, and my menorah was nearby.
To solve the lack of a chimney, after my parents fell asleep, I opened a window in our fifth-floor apartment. I imagined Santa could park his sleigh on our fire escape. When I woke up the next morning, the window was closed and Santa had delivered a present. I can’t even recall what it was, but my memory of the morning lasts.
My relationship with Santa took a hiatus until my daughter, Amanda, was born in 1992. My wife, Lauren, and I saw no reason to deprive her of meeting Santa.
A friend and former co-worker of mine portrayed Santa at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan. He dressed in the traditional toymaker outfit and walked through the complex. He told me to stop by with my wife and daughter, and asked for their names in advance so he could greet them. He reminded me to call him Santa and not by his real name. When he saw us at the seaport, he greeted us by our names. My daughter’s mouth opened wide and she pulled back. She was too young to appreciate being greeted by Santa by name, but other families waiting to see him seemed awestruck.
Weeks later, my cousin, a volunteer ambulance worker who dressed as Santa and visited children in community centers, stopped by our apartment in Bensonhurst in his costume. This was Amanda’s second up-close encounter. She kept her distance and just looked at him. Our neighbors were impressed that Santa made house calls before Christmas — and used the elevator.
A few years later, we moved to Long Island. We’d get in the car and drive past vibrant Christmas home displays, even taking a particular street on the way to our temple.
My two children are now grown up and do not visit Santa, and we do not have a Christmas tree, yet our family still enjoys the holiday. On Christmas Eve, in the spirit of the night, we leave a plate of my favorite cookies on the kitchen table in hopes Santa will leave a present.
Four years ago, thanks to my wife winning a holiday party raffle, Santa left us a 32-inch flat-screen television.
Reader Howard Lev lives in East Meadow.