Christmas is coming

December is our busiest season at InterfaithFamily.com. We’ve already had over 30,000 unique visitors to our site this month, and the most popular content is about the December holidays.

With Hanukkah over and Christmas coming this week, with many interfaith couples getting ready to celebrate Christmas and many Jews not comfortable with that, I’d like to highlight the lessons of our sixth annual December Holidays Survey. We started doing these surveys in response to a book by Sylvia Barack Fishman called Double or Nothing, where she argued that interfaith families who said they were raising their children as Jews, really weren’t, because they had Christmas trees in their homes and as a result the children turn out not to be Jewish. I felt that was a ridiculous conclusion, that she did not understand the couples she interviewed, and set out to ask our readers about their experiences.

Our respondents have been strikingly consistent over six years:  high percentages of interfaith couples raising their children as Jews participate in Christmas celebrations, close to half with Christmas trees in their own homes, but doing so in a secular, non-religious manner, and confident their children’s Jewish identity is not compromised.

This year we looked for trends in over recent years and found that more of these families were celebrating Christmas at the home of relatives (79%, up from 66% in 2007) and keeping their Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations separate (89%, up from 83% in 2007). The percentage who thought their Christmas celebrations do not affect their children’s Jewish identity increased from 73% in 2008 to 81% in 2009. In our press release announcing the survey results, I said we were seeing an increasing normalization of interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas.

Our survey has attracted a lot of publicity this year. It was featured on USA Today’s Faith and Reason blog, in Jewish papers in Cleveland and Boston, and most recently in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent’s A Merry Little Chanukah? where Aaron Passman interviewed two of the respondents to our survey. Passman quotes Steven Bayme, one of the Jewish intellectual leaders most critical of intermarriage, as saying that a Christmas tree is “suggestive of the very thin nature of the Jewish identity of the home.” But the article features the family of Dr. Andrea Kesack — they belong to a synagogue, their children go to religious school, and their oldest daughter recently became bat mitzvah. It is insulting to them — and to the thousands of families like their’s — to say that the presence of a Christmas tree in their home indicates “thin” Jewish identity, and I’ve written a letter to the editor to make that point.

Jews have the hardest time understanding that Christmas does not have any religious significance to many interfaith families. But from what we hear from many of the interfaith couples themselves, it’s really like Thanksgiving. The first time we did our survey, I was amazed at the very low percentage of interfaith couples raising Jewish children who  “tell the Christmas story.” That story is of course fundamentally religious, and the fact that this year only 4% are telling the Christmas story at home is a pretty clear indicator of the non-religious nature of these families’ celebrations.

This morning I got a Google alert of a story in a secular paper, the Monterey County Herald, titled Embracing your inner Santa. It turned out to be an advice column by a marriage counselor, responding to someone who wanted to celebrate Christmas with her child but was getting objections from her “rigorously secular” spouse: 

Most people would agree that the religious holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus has been significantly transformed into a secular celebration. “Holiday” parties are now the norm at most businesses. Images of starry-eyed children opening packages has become almost completely disconnected from the day’s religious meaning.

As best I can tell, neither the therapist or the couple involved were Jewish, but I wish that the therapist’s description of Christmas as a secular holiday would be taken to heart by those in the Jewish community who are uneasy about Christmas. Today, half of the young adults who identify or could identify as Jews have one Jewish parent, so most of them grew up participating in some form in Christmas celebrations. It used to be that someone who celebrated Christmas wasn’t Jewish, but that simply is no longer the case.

For those of you for whom the December holidays aren’t over — I hope you have a very happy holiday.

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3 thoughts on “Christmas is coming

  1. Thank you SO much for this post.  I’m ethnically a WASP (if there is such a thing) and non-religious. It frustrates me no end that my Jewish friends simply don’t believe me that Christmas has no religious significance to me but that I nonetheless enjoy the pretty decorations in an airport.

    I have a non-believing Jewish friend who is incensed when someone asks come January, how were your holidays?  My friend says they weren’t “My holidays.”  My friend simply does not accept that the questioner is asking (n shorthand),  ”Did you enjoy your time off from work, did you go anywhere, did you have any visitors?”

  2. As the non-Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage, I also agree, to a certain extent. Religion was never much of a part of my family’s Christmas celebrations. As I have learned more about Judaism, I have come to think of it as akin to Shabat, a time to spend time with family and shut out the distractions of everyday life.

    But I can also understand that for my Jewish husband, it has always meant a time to feel excluded. It is quite understandable to me that he cannot think of it as a secular holiday, as it has always been a holiday that wasn’t for him. As he put it to me, being the guy with no Christmas tree has always been part of his identity.
    So we don’t have a tree in our home, but spend the holiday with my family. There are many ways to resolve these dilemmas, as long as you are sensitive to one another.

  3. I do not understand the feeling of exclusion.  Your husband’s family chose to be excluded.  No one was stopping them from buying an artificial tree at Wal-Mart or whatever.  

    In my experience with many Jewish friends and acquaintances over many years, they are excluding me, I am not excluding them.  (I am referring here to myself; not denying the reality of anti-Semitism.) I remember feeling very uncomfortable when I was the “guest” at a Seder.  The hosts spoke to me as though I was uneducated and would never have heard the stories of what I generally refer to as the Old Testament.

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