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My name is Melissa, and I’m absolutely thrilled to be contributing to the InterfaithFamily parenting blog. This is my tenth Christmas/Hanukkah season with Marc, and I find that as it approaches, it’s the first one that I’m relaxed and happy about in a long time. I grew up in a distinctly non-Jewish household, we were nominally Catholic and probably closer to a New Age Pagan sort of belief system. My husband Marc was literally the first Jewish person I’d ever met. I converted to Judaism four years ago. At that point, Marc and I had been married for seven years. My oldest two children, Jessica (9) and Sam (6), went to the mikveh with me, and Julianna, my baby, was born two and half years ago. Even though we’re officially not an interfaith family, we still sometimes struggle with a lot of cultural issues, as we’re both coming from such completely different backgrounds.
We celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, and I’m perfectly content about it, for the first time in years. We also do Easter/Passover, but somehow, that’s never really been an issue. Passover is a much more significant event – Easter is reduced to nothing more than a fun party at Grammy’s house.
But in years past, I’ve really agonized over what we do in December. Marc and I were always guaranteed at least one killer battle, whereupon we would argue and debate and theorize for hours over whether or not he was celebrating Christmas with the “right” frame of mind (I never thought he was, he – correctly, I now realize – is entitled to be angst ridden in his own way, as long as we are unified as a family). The most important thing for me is that we do it together. We’re Jewish together, as a family, we celebrate Christmas together, as a family.
Christmas was, for me, a way of asserting my own impact on the kids. A way to say to them that yes, we’re Jewish, but that’s not all that we are, and you don’t have to lose out on my traditions because of it. It was an identity thing for me. I wanted desperately for Judaism to be an addition to my life, to their life. Not to have it represent loss.
Because we are Jewish – and I love that. I feel at home with Judaic spirituality, it makes utter and complete sense to me. I love Shabbat, I love the holidays and the everyday holiness. I love the blessings over tiny events, and the sense of appreciation and gratitude. I love the community. I really love the community. I love that my kids are so welcomed and adored and comfortable at the synagogue.
But I also love my own traditions. My own memories of beautiful Christmas trees and hot cocoa and candy canes – and I think my kids deserve that. I don’t pretend that ALL kids deserve it, if you don’t celebrate Christmas because you feel it’s a Christian holiday and as a non-Christian it’s not your day, that’s completely understandable. But for me, Christmas was never particularly a Christian holiday. If there was any religious significance to it, it was always more Pagan, with the tree and the candles and the light in the darkness kind of thing. Which translates nicely (for me, at least) with Hanukkah. I think my kids get to celebrate Christmas because they’re my kids. Because they are my mother’s grandchildren. And it’s as much a part of who they are as Hanukkah candles, latkes and dreidels.
In the end, my kids will make up their own minds about religion and spirituality and what traditions they want to continue and what they’ll let slide. I chose to raise them within a religious community that is theirs by inheritance – half their family is Jewish – and took the extra steps to convert them so that nobody would question their Jewish identity. I converted myself, due in no small part to my conviction that if my family was Jewish, then I was as well. But celebrating Christmas may well be what makes it possible for me to embrace raising my children in a culture that still feels alien to me, to teach them songs in a language that makes no sense to me, and to learn to make challah and make sure I’ve got Shabbat candles for Friday.
And in the end, my kids’ Jewish identity is going to rely a lot more on the challah recipe that I’m perfecting, the years of religious education I make them go to, the Shabbat dinner every Friday night, and the fact that we simply are Jewish. The conflict was just between Marc and I, and I suppose, the greater culture at large, that insists that being Jewish means NOT celebrating Christmas, and insisting that you can’t participate in Christmas unless you believe that Jesus is the Son of God. My kids know they’re Jewish, and they know what that means. They don’t agonize over it; their Jewish identity is as obvious to them and as undeniable as the fact that they’ve all got brown eyes. It’s not up for debate, it simply is. They also know that they celebrate Christmas because it’s the tradition I grew up with, the one that half their extended family celebrates, and that it’s a holiday like Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. Not a religious one, but one that we celebrate enthusiastically.
Bring on the candy canes, and this week, I’m lighting the endless number of menorahs the kids have made and stringing the Christmas lights and hanging stocking. I couldn’t be happier.
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