Christmukkah Redux

I’m going to jump into the whole Christmas/Hanukkah discussion with both feet and with some potentially unpopular views. As someone raised in an entirely Christian household (Catholic mother, Baptist father), I’ve got a lot of history with and feelings about Christmas (mostly good). As Jordyn Rozensky wrote on this website, I associate the holiday above all with family get-togethers. It also makes me think of going home for the holidays, It’s a Wonderful Life, the smell of fresh pine, red and green decorations, frosted cookies, etc., etc. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was something to look forward to because the clergy burned incense, the choir was the biggest and best that night, and everyone was in a good mood.

When my Jewish husband and I got married, celebrating Christmas was never a problem. He himself grew up in an interfaith family (Episcopal mother, Jewish father—I know, I know, not considered “really” Jewish in some quarters, more on that in later blogs) that celebrated Christmas. Even my husband’s “very” German Jewish cousins, not interfaith, celebrated Christmas as their families had done ever since arriving in America in the 1800s. So for years we merrily put up a tree, hung stockings, festooned our apartment, then our house, with angels and elves and reindeer—the whole nine yards—without a care. We also joined a synagogue and raised our children as Jews, which included celebrating Hanukkah. We continue to light candles every night of Hanukkah, and the kids receive presents on the first and last nights.

The problems started when I decided to convert. Our kids were 13, 9, and 4 when I began attending classes. I loved conversion class, loved studying Torah, learning Jewish history and picking up some Hebrew. But then came the night when our coordinator brought up the topic of Christmas, delicately suggesting that we might not want to celebrate it any more and wondering how we would feel about that. One young woman looked distraught, then broke down crying and left. Really, she did. Giving up Christmas was too much for her to contemplate. To be honest, if I’d thought at that moment that I would have to give up Christmas once I converted, I probably would have started crying, too. The truth is, as soon as the coordinator asked us, I knew in a profound way that I couldn’t give it up. Besides, even if my husband and I decided to stop celebrating Christmas, our children would most likely tie us up in tinsel, stuff stockings in our mouths, and carry on without us.

So here we are as the holidays approach, now a completely Jewish family, yet neither entirely one thing or the other. We’re ok with it. But sometimes others aren’t. It’s their reactions that give me pause. Every season it happens: a newer Jewish friend or parent of my child’s friend or a neighbor who knows we are Jewish will give us that hard-edged look, or that telling “oooooh, you have a tree.” I flinch. I resist the urge to explain our background, that I just converted a few years ago, that really we are good Jews, that we go to family school and pray.

This is my current solution: I weasel. We put the tree in the back of the house so it’s not quite so apparent to passersby. We tend not to mention it at synagogue, which is interfaith anyway. We hang white lights, which could technically be regarded as a paean to the winter solstice!

Maybe it’s my inner rebel, maybe it’s my dear departed mother’s voice, maybe it’s just a surrender to overwhelming cultural influences, but I won’t stop celebrating the holiday with a tree and presents. And every Christmas morning, I’m perennially surprised and delighted to find there’s still a little magic left.

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7 thoughts on “Christmukkah Redux

  1. Thank you for a beautiful post!  I was particularly struck by the fact that your husband’s Jewish cousins have also “always” celebrated Christmas – and I was wondering if I could ask whether they would say that they are celebrating Christmas, or wintertime, or new years, or something like that?  

    I’ve been having the same kind of debate with myself (I am Jewish – my husband is not, and yep, we have a tree) because my mother is Russian Jewish and my grandparents always used to have a tree and presents too, but for new years.  This is a common thing to do for Russians and Russian Jews, and at first when I was dating my then boyfriend I simply related his celebration to my own childhood experience and left it at that.  After a few years, though, I’ve grown a bit more uncomfortable with it – because even though my grandparents had a tree and the whole shebang, it was always a *new years* tree, new year’s presents, and that.  And I never confused it with Christmas as a child.  Celebrating with a tree on the 25th is quite different from celebrating with a tree on the 31st.  Maybe some will say that’s nitpicking, but it’s how I’ve taken to looking at it, at least for now.  My husband has given up a lot for me and I can’t ask him to give this up too, so I’m just trying to wrestle through my own discomfort for now.  So I’d be interested to hear how other non-interfaith Jewish people have thought about putting up a tree.  

    On the other hand, I think the whole emphasis on Christmas or no Christmas is overrated – as others have stated on this website, one day doesn’t negate the other 364, and the fact that non-interfaith Jews have managed to have strong Jewish identities (as at least my Russian Jewish family did) and put up trees during the winter should show that to the nay-sayers.      

  2. We also have a tree and I (the Jew) grew-up with one. Tired of being made to feel like a “bad” Jew because I have a tree I’m on crusade to change it. As chair of our synagogue’s Outreach Committee, tonight, I am facilitating our December Dilemma discussion. Except this year, tired of the “dilemma” portion in the title making us focus so much on the problems and forget about the good in the season, we have reconfigured the program to be more positive. December Celebrations: Experiencing the Oys and Joys of the Holidays. While we will help address those with concerns or issues, we will also emphasize creating new traditions that help take away the power the tree holds for so many.

  3. Oh, thank you, thank you for delving into Christmas/Hanukkah discussions! I’m working on a post about it myself (so many gazillion questions, thoughts, worries float in my head this time of year), and yours actually has helped so much! I love this perspective, and it does make me feel less guilty about “forcing” (for lack of a better term) the decorations to coincide in my house. Christmas was (and still is) BIG in my parents’ house. I love it, and I’ll admit to having a hard time trying to “tone it down” in my own house, trying to be respectful of both religions and both holidays. So thank you for proving that not only can they happily coexist, but also that they can even coexist in a (now) completely Jewish home!

  4. Dear Lisa:

    Maybe your Christmas tree could be thought of in this way — your husband has a German Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother. I’m sure that his mother appreciated the Christmas celebrations that he had as a child. Your children must have a lot of Christian relatives.

    Perhaps Christmas is a way of honoring your husband’s and children’s Christian “half.”

    That is how the members of the Half-Jewish Network — I’m its Coordinator — sometimes think about our interfaith parents and grandparents.

    Cordially,
    Robin Margolis
    http://www.half-jewish.net

  5. Thanks for all your enlightening comments! Also, something I forgot to mention in my post–since I converted we put a Star of David on top of our tree and call it a Hanukkah bush. To HotCocoa: I know it sounds a little peculiar but my husband’s relatives did (and do) in fact refer to Christmas as Christmas and have never acknowledged any conflict. I see this as a continuation of their families’ efforts at assimilation way back when and something they don’t even think about anymore. Of course there is no religion in it for them–they see it as a secular holiday, a time for good food, celebrating life, and family. I find the whole New Year’s angle to Russian celebrations that you mentioned really fascinating, a way to join the cultural context but not forgo Jewish identity. This is one of those issues where you have to figure out what’s best for you and your family, and let criticisms go in one ear and out the other.

  6. My friend, Fr Nameless, a Roman Catholic Priest in Washington DC once said to me, only half kidding, “So it has come to this…you Jews appropriate religious symbols of your neighbors and then re-define these Christian ritual objects for yourselves and for others. You say oh, the symbol of Christ’s Mass doesn’t really mean that at all. What chutzpah!”
    Indeed, we Jews have so decided, it’s a national holiday, it’s a Chanukah bush, a holiday tree, a winter whatever, a harmless practice. And sure in return we give you Christians our permission to reinterpret our Jewish symbols if you like. Blow our shofar at the St. Something parade in New Orleans and why not some dancing with a Torah Scroll at a baptism? Jews would not think it inappropriate or impertinent and certainly not a sacrilege. Really?
    We define the meaning of the religious sybmbols of others and we worry about our own Jewish attitudes rarely considering the attitudes  of others nor the insult we unthinkingly and selfishly inflict upon others by degrading their symbols. These are religious rites and meaning that belong to our Christian neighbors not to us.
    Killing a tree without even the possible redeeming value of a religious rite? Must you? Must we?

  7. I understand that this is an emotional subject and that it can feel like a betrayal. But I will say with all due respect that as a practicing Catholic for 22 years, I never heard one single Christian complain about a Jewish family or one of any other faith for that matter putting up a tree. The importance of the Christmas Mass (whose profound meaning i would never, ever devalue) isn’t exactly intimately tied to Christmas trees. Also, the fact that my husband and I put up a tree gave great joy to my Christian parents and made them feel included in our new life together. On the environmental side, you could argue that Christmas tree farms give employment like any crop.

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