The World According to Santa

After two years playing the role, a writer reflects on learning Canadian Christmas traditions — and why the jolly old elf should always carry a bell

The World According to Santa
Seventy-nine-year-old Manfred Schultz is a long-serving Santa in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. (Matthias Bein/picture alliance via Getty Images)

It was two days before Christmas and I was marching back home in full Santa Claus regalia, ringing my bell, on a frigid Montreal winter morning. (I’m lying: After five years in Canada, 20 degrees Fahrenheit is not that bad anymore for this Alexandria-born Arab.) Two women stopped me to take photos to show their families. The kids at a nearby children’s dentist waved at me through the windows, and I waved back with genuine enthusiasm. I yelled “Joyeux Noel” at a garbage truck that excitedly honked as I stood waiting on an intersection and rang my bell at the kids in an SUV who were screaming because they happened upon Santa on the street. I stood and chatted with a group of striking teachers at their picket line outside the local school.

I had just finished performing as Santa at my son’s day care, handing out presents, singing, taking photos, dispensing hugs and generally providing good cheer. I thought it was hilarious that a Muslim Arab had played Santa Claus at the day care two years in a row.

I started celebrating Christmas in 2015, the year I met my now-wife in Beirut. I had attended Christmas dinners with friends in the Middle East and Europe but had not partaken in the elaborate rituals that preceded the holiday and would usually offer to cover Christmas shifts at work so those who did could spend it at home. I went to a Catholic school in Dubai when I was growing up, which was attached to a church, but we were usually off during the holidays, and the large Christmas trees in the malls were a novelty on the way to the real party on New Year’s. My sole inkling of the spiritual tenor of the event was a reporting visit I made when I was working for a Lebanese newspaper to a church in Dahiyeh, the majority-Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, during Mass on Christmas morning. It felt novel to attend such a thing in a neighborhood that was largely known in international newspapers by the cliche “Hezbollah stronghold.” That was the moniker it was given every time it was bombed by an al Qaeda terrorist during those uncertain days when militants began to flourish in the battlegrounds of neighboring Syria, and their violence spilled out over the border.

My wife is Christian, and, as our first Christmas together was drawing near, she mentioned how she missed decorating the tree every year with her late mother in Aleppo. So I went out and bought a tree from the neighborhood florist and watched as my two cats brought it down a couple of times before we propped it up and decorated it.

From that point onward, I became a Christmas connoisseur, an avowed enjoyer of the various rituals that go into the holiday, some I suppose an amalgamation of the homegrown Arab elements and the saccharine and commercial aspects propagated by the Hollywood-TV industrial complex. The carol music playlist on the night features Frank Sinatra, Michael Buble, Fairuz, Hiba Tawaji, Jacques Prevert, Majida al-Roumi and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” There is often a turkey, but one prepared in the Middle Eastern way, with mixed rice, roasted nuts and raisins. Christmas Eve dinner is lasagna, for some reason, and the dessert is a yule log and/or rosewater pistachio cake made by a Lebanese caterer in the city. The Christmas tree has to be a balsam fir even though the falling needles drive my wife crazy. Christmas market maple taffy and chocolates are a requirement.

That isn’t to say that I don’t find various aspects of the Christmas process (it is a process lasting several weeks, as far as I can tell) incomprehensible. I don’t quite understand how stocking stuffers are supposed to fit into the bigger picture of gift giving, who is supposed to get them, or why they are even a part of the process, given how difficult it is to pick just one present for one individual. I’m not entirely sure why various families think it necessary to perform the social dance of fighting with each other in the run-up to Christmas Eve, before magically forgetting their various grievances on the night itself. I would rather get cash to spend on whatever I want, like the “eidiya” money we got as kids during Eid festivals, than a surprise gift, and I imagine children of a certain age would too, rather than another set of pajamas.

For that matter, I can’t help but compare the Christmas celebrations with the Eid ones I had as a child and to also feel guilty about it. Unlike Christmas, which for us is a smaller occasion with my wife and her immediate family, Eid was a communal event, inextricably tied to the religious and spiritual aspects of the holiday and the lead-up to it. We fasted during Ramadan, and almost every evening we had relatives and friends over for the iftar meal, whiling away the hours after alternating between prayers, soap operas and convivial socializing (prayers were intensified on the last 10 days of the month). The morning of Eid, we woke up bleary-eyed for the prayers, had an enormous breakfast with family and friends, napped until the afternoon and spent the rest of the day with friends. On Eid al-Adha, my mom would tune into the TV channels broadcasting the prayers from Mecca, growing increasingly teary-eyed as the day wore on, remembering when she was there as a pilgrim herself. There was a constant din in our flat of the chants of the pilgrims descending from Mount Arafat to the holy city to circumambulate the Kaaba. Sometimes I would attend the ritual animal sacrifice on Eid morning — the meat would then be distributed to the needy.

That is to say, it was all inextricably tied to a sense of community that is absent for me as a member of the diaspora. This is partly a self-imposed problem: I do not live in an area of Montreal that has a sizable Arab or Egyptian community, because I prefer living near the city center over suburbia.

But it is also because Eid and Ramadan are not part of the pop culture and imagination here, even if one is aware of their arrival and passage. I also think Eid has a marketing problem, both because animal sacrifice is not exactly child-friendly, given the prevalence of cute and vocal sheep, cows and goats in children’s storybooks, and because it lacks figureheads like Santa to coalesce around. In fact, it is at least as nakedly a materialistic holiday in the way it is celebrated nowadays as Christmas, despite our penchant for pretending that it is not so, because children are directly given money rather than going through the trouble of buying presents and requiring the self-control not to open them immediately when they materialize under the tree.

This is ironic because St. Nicholas, the inspiration behind Santa Claus, is actually a Turk. I know because I visited his church near Antalya on a reporting trip years ago (also to mark Christmas), where archaeological digs were underway after the discovery of what was likely his tomb under the edifice (the archaeologists there believed that his remains may have been partially stolen and placed in Bari, Italy, but that those who stole them may have in fact robbed the wrong tomb). It is also ironic because the St. Nicholas archetype is one who repeatedly surfaces in Islamic mythology. Both Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, and Imam Zine al-Abidine, a revered figure in Shiism, are said to have wandered the streets of their cities at night to secretly help the needy and listen in to their trials.

Trying to instill a love for Eid in a child growing up in the West reminds me of an episode in the TV show “Friends” in which Ross, who is Jewish, tries to interest his son in Hanukkah while dressed as a holiday armadillo but struggles because his son is more interested in meeting Santa. He eventually succeeds when his friend Chandler, dressed as Santa, asks to hear the story of Hanukkah.

Perhaps Santa will make an appearance early next year for Eid. Either way, the answer, I think, is more stories that can bring us all together.

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