I first met Santa Claus in Vienna.
It was November 1989. The Berlin Wall toppled. Soviet Communism neared collapse. And my family, along with thousands of Soviet Jews, in exodus from the USSR.
I was 8 years old when we left Moscow. We left as Soviet Jews, but I didn’t know I was Jewish — or that there was such a thing as Judaism.
I never wanted for anything as a child in the USSR. I had no idea that there was more to want.The first stop on our journey was Vienna, Austria.
Vienna was a winter wonderland. Snow. Lights. Song.
Every moment and around every corner, there were more cultural and material things I had never encountered before.
A gumball machine. An individual serving of half a chicken. A toy elephant full of candy. Barbie dolls that probably were not actual Barbies but a departure from the baby dolls I was used to.
We were housed in an inn. The accomodations were warm and wonderful. My family had two separate rooms for the six of us. The innkeeper provided delicious food. She also allowed the refugees to sell Russian souvenirs that they brought with them to earn money. Wooden bear toys. Nesting dolls. Shawls. My mother was a natural. Even though she is an engineer, she became a saleswoman whose pitch transcended the language barrier.
There was a shop across from the inn. Everything in it was new to me. I had never seen real Coca Cola — or any soda bigger than a single serving. I had never seen any kind of yogurt, so the seeming infinite varieties astounded me. Once, I went to the shop by myself and walked through it like I was in the greatest museum on earth.
In the USSR, the most loved and anticipated holiday is New Year’s Eve. New Year’s trees are everywhere, decorated with ornaments and lights. School children prepare special shows in anticipation of the holiday. “Father Frost,” a friendly old man with a big beard and red and white outfit would pose for pictures with the children. And most importantly, gifts! The best gifts of the year — second maybe only to birthday gifts — come on New Year’s.
So in Vienna, the Christmas trees and decorations and Santa were not exactly new to me.
That Christmas season in 1989 I was in total awe and wonder of the joy and kindness that surrounded me.
My family reached Michigan in March 1990. Here we learned about Jewish and American customs, traditions and holidays. We welcomed Shabbat, collected candy on Halloween, gathered for Thanksgiving and lit Hanukkah menorahs.
But Santa was not for Jewish kids and Father Frost was a world away. Those beautiful traditions of welcoming the New Year in the USSR were left behind, along with so much else, in favor of a new life here.
So 1989 was my first Christmas and my last Christmas. I sometimes have to remind myself that Vienna is a real place in between my old life and here — not simply a scene inside a snow globe.
Someday, I will return to Vienna. To the very inn where my family was sheltered as refugees. I hope it is still run by the same woman who opened her doors and heart to the Jewish migrants that winter. Or that the new innkeeper will let me know where she is enjoying her well deserved retirement. I would learn how to thank her in German. I would cry as I am now remembering her generosity.