When I was a kid, I – like millions of other children across America – ardently believed in Santa Claus. The problem? That persnickety detail that I’m Muslim. Oh, and that I happened to be living in Saudi Arabia at the time. There I was, in a desert nation, mere miles from Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, captivated by mistletoe, turtledoves, Christmas lights, and outlandish accounts of reindeer with remarkably unconventional capabilities.
I wonder if my parents had any idea of the gusto with which we observed the birth of Christ at the American school in Jeddah. Our music teachers led us in rousing renditions of “Jingle Bells” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”; we watched The Nutcracker ballet on TV and erected whimsical gingerbread houses; and the halls at school were decked most extravagantly indeed. In art class I strove to craft the glitteriest, spangliest star to take home to hoist atop our nonexistent tree. I was sad to discover that Dusty the Sandman doesn’t have quite the same ring, nor does he hold together quite as well as his frostier counterpart. And if there were any irony to painstakingly poring over paper snowflakes in the middle of the desert, it was lost upon me as we fashioned our own little air-conditioned winter wonderland oasis. Who cares if it was actually 90 degrees and there were only palm trees in sight?
But what fascinated me the most about this holiday was the existence of one particular jovial, borderline obese, and strangely generous man with impeccable time-management skills. I did not doubt Santa’s existence, and listened with reverent awe to Mrs. Faulkner, our music teacher, as she recounted tales of his heroics. I rejoiced when Rudolph (with his nose so bright) got to drive his sleigh one night. I tried extra hard to be good for goodness sake, because the potential ramifications of winding up on the naughty list concerned me greatly. And yes, I may have furtively dispatched a missive or two to the North Pole. My parents usually just rolled their eyes and humored me, occasionally even carting my ambitious letters off to the post office. They must have just gotten lost in the mail, I consoled myself, as Dec. 25 came and went with nary a pink Barbie convertible in sight.
Sure, many people believe there’s nothing wrong with letting kids get caught up in this innocent fabrication while they’re young. But show me anything more heartbreaking than a gullible, sweet, frizzy-haired child passionately believing in this mythology, only to realize through an exhaustive investigation of her friends, that her jolly old idol appears to peddle exclusively to Christian kids. I give up food and water for a month every Ramadan, while they get stockings and presents and fancy trees – even the ones who are decidedly more naughty than nice? Where is the justice?
After a few years of receiving no love from Santa, even when I went all the way to Michigan to sit on his lap in front of a Sears to earnestly beseech him to include my humble abode in his travel plans, I stopped seeing the world through red-and-green tinted glasses. I became a pint-size Grinch. I secretly hoped Santa would drop the Kingdom off his global itinerary. After all, there are no chimneys in the desert. How would his big butt shimmy his way into a nonexistent fireplace? And who was going to guide his sleigh through the dunes, Raheem the Red-Nosed Camel? Muahahahaha. But somehow that wily fatso always found a way, and my classmates would come back to school in January with reports of their holiday spoils: new clothes and bikes and Cabbage Patch Kids and Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers and Transformers and Popples.
Sure, I got my own piles of presents on my birthday two weeks later, but that wasn’t the point. Was it too much to ask to be pampered, just one night a year, by a random red-suited stranger with a broad face and little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly? One who knows when you’re sleeping, and knows when you’re awake? Which, in retrospect, sounds rather creepy, but what did I know?
I think we all can guess how this story ended: Eventually the truth came out, devastating millions of young believers. But by then, I was not among them. Knowing what I did about the not-so-enchanted origins of those colorfully packaged presents, by the time that fat troll’s scam was finally revealed, I wasn’t shouting, pouting, or crying.
But I have a feeling that by the time I have kids of my own, they may have a magical Eid Elf in their lives, mysteriously appearing at the end of Ramadan with food and gifts galore.
Sarah Khan is an editor at Travel + Leisure and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Vogue India, New York Press, and other outlets. You can read more of her work at http://www.bysarahkhan.com or follow her on Twitter @BySarahKhan. Originally published in the Huffington Post.