Being Jewish at Christmas
We often read and hear about the tug of war that happens between Hanukkah and Christmas in American households with spouses and extended family of more than one faith. Although the two holidays really have nothing to do with each other, the in-home, in-heart emotional conflict between them can seem daunting. That may be especially true this year because they directly converge, with Hanukkah beginning on Christmas Eve.
We know that intermarriage rates are rising: 72 percent of non-Orthodox Jews who have married since 2000 said “I do” to a non-Jewish spouse, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study on American Jewry. The “December Dilemma”—and the accompanying joy and complicated feelings that go along with it—is very real for some of these families.
However, for many of us who are intermarried and raising Jewish families, this “dilemma” isn’t such a dilemma after all. We’ll put up our Christmas tree and get out the menorah. We’ll decorate the house with blue lights and shred mounds of potatoes for latkes. We’ll buy eight gifts for each child, one for each night of the Festival of Lights, plus more from “Santa” for under the tree. We’ll play the dreidel game with Bubbe and bake Christmas cookies with Nana.
And because we do these things, many outside our own families will point accusatory fingers at us and say we are “doing both” (some indeed do both) and that doing so is confusing for the kids (let them ask questions and have those conversations). And that we are wrong (who decides what is wrong?). And my favorite: We’re not really raising our kids Jewish (we are). Celebrating these joyous occasions is not confusing for my Jewish children. They know they are Jewish.
But just as our Jewish traditions are important to us, they also know that the traditions of my husband, Dave, and his family are an important part of our familial fabric that we don’t want to lose. In my house, celebrating Christmas is not celebrating another religion, it is celebrating family and traditions that have been passed down for generations.
Early on in our relationship, Dave and I agreed that we would raise our children Jewish. He wanted to keep Christmas because he wanted to share with his children those celebrations that were so meaningful to him. So we agreed. Now, for our family, having both Christmas and Hanukkah holidays in our home—and with his family in their home—is a normal expression of both traditions. Our 10-year-old son, Alex, understands that our faith is Jewish and that our celebration of Christmas is a family tradition, as opposed to a faith celebration. As our 5-year-old Eli gets older, we’ll have that same conversation with him. Alex likes to brag that he gets to have two special celebrations in December, and both are full of love and light and family and tons of delicious food.
Every family is going to make decisions that are right for them. The way my family celebrates the December holiday season is the way my husband and I decided together. That is the important part. We have conversations and make decisions about these issues that are comfortable for us both. This helps us avoid the dreaded dilemma part of the December holidays. Talking about faith alongside ritual and religious celebration is important for all aspects of being an interfaith family, not just during the December holidays.
I would urge all interfaith families to have conversations about Christmas trees and dreidels, and if you are brave enough, talk in-depth about the two holidays and their meanings in their respective religious realms. There are tools available to help guide the conversations (interfaithfamily.com offers many). Once you come to conclusions that are right for your family, the dilemma won’t seem so daunting.
Liz Polay-Wettengel is the national director of marketing and communications for InterfaithFamily, an organization that supports interfaith families exploring Jewish life.
Fillis Stober says
I appreciate this thoughtful article. I am now a grandmother who has had intermarriage in my family since my grandparents’ generation. I agree that the December dilemma can be managed, and it sounds like you are doing well. I would be interested in your point of view on the rest of the year. My observation has been that where Jewish kids lose the thread of Judaism is more likely to be the September dilemma. In many families, on the holiest days of our Jewish year, the non-Jewish spouse gets up and goes to work. There is no festive family time after Rosh Hashanah services, because one parent is not there, and the children may be sent off to do their homework even before the holiday is over. How special does Judaism feel when our most sacred day is barely celebrated in a child’s home. Of course this can be true even if both parents are Jewish. The same is true of Shabbat, which, sadly, is often ignored completely. Simply lighting Shabbat candles and and having Challah and grape juice on Friday night can be tremendously meaningful. So I agree, let’s, as a community, stop focusing so much on December as an issue, and begin showing our children the beauty of the true Jewish calendar, and the festivals and holy days that we celebrate all year long.
Liz Polay-Wettengel says
Thank you. We do Shabbat as a family every Friday evening and my husband fully participates in the High Holy Days with us as a family. He even builds the sukkah in the back yard. As an interfaith family, we participate in Judaism together and hope to break the stereotype of what the Jewish community thinks we are or are not.
I guess the question will be what faith will your grandchildren adhere to. And who will their children be?