When my husband read an early draft of this essay, he asked, "Why doesn't her partner have to support our daughter? After all, they agreed to raise children as Jews." What does it mean to raise a Jewish child?
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I’m Jewish, and pretty happy about it. I converted about four years ago, with our oldest two children. But, yeah, I still celebrate Christmas. I don’t celebrate it as the birth of Christ, but it’s still a tremendously meaningful and important holiday for me. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite holiday of the year – there’s too much other stress going on for that. December is decidedly a challenging month for my husband and I. Between the number of Jewish people who write articles that I can’t stop myself from reading that assure me that a tree has no place in a Jewish home, and worrying about whether or not people are judging me for putting up the tree anyway. It’s celebrating a holiday that while it has never been particularly Christian to me – it is a Christian holiday to many people. And either way, it is most definitely not Jewish. It’s a hard month for my husband, who didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas, but not celebrating it is almost a part of his Jewish identity – so it’s never an easy time of year.
But celebrate it we do, enthusiastically. I’ve got stocking hung by the chimney with care, and a tree that’s lopsided, with way too many lights on it, and ornaments that are well loved and not particularly coordinated. I’ve got pictures of all of my babies with Santa Claus, and tinsel and candy canes EVERYWHERE. So why do I celebrate? Why do I insist on participating in holiday that everyone keeps telling me is all about rampant consumerism and materialism? If I strip away the Christian connotations to it, what exactly is Christmas all about? And why exactly do I insist every year that we celebrate it?
I celebrate it because it’s wrapped up in some of my favorite memories from my childhood. Caroling with my cousins, singing songs to my sister at night before we fell asleep. Every Christmas Eve, my little sister would beg to sleep in my bed with me, and I’d tell her stories about Santa and swear that I could see Rudolph’s nose in the sky. Baking Christmas cookies with my baby cousins, and taking my nieces and nephews out at night to look for the prettiest Christmas lights. My mother has this one song – Mary’s Boy Child, and it’s this odd sort of Jamaican Christmas carol, and every time it comes on the radio, she’d turn it up as loud as it could go and rock out. My mother doesn’t rock out as a rule, and watching her chair dance in the car while we drove anywhere in December was (and is) kind of awesome.
I celebrate it because I love the anticipation of Christmas Day. I love that my kids talk about Santa Claus (despite the fact that both the older ones know it’s just a myth). When I was a kid, I loved that sense, all month long, that we were building up to this one day when magically, just because, we’d wake up and find that someone had brought us presents, just because. It’s not about the gifts, exactly. Looking back, I don’t remember any specific Christmas gift that I ever got that made a huge impression. What I remember is the magic, the excitement and the joy of it all. I want that for my kids.
I celebrate it because I’m still my mother’s daughter. And I’m raising her grandchildren. Having a child convert to a different religion isn’t easy, and my mother supported me and stood beside me every step of the way. I’ve never doubted her love or commitment, and I can’t imagine how hurt and disappointed she’d be if I didn’t give my kids the same opportunity to love Christmas as she gave me. I won’t do that to her. I won’t do that to her grandchildren. It’s not that she wants them to not be Jewish, she loves listening to my two year old lisp out the Shabbat blessings, and makes sure that she’s a part of our holiday traditions as well. She just wants to know that my family still a part of her family, celebrating her favorite holidays and traditions. Like sleeping over at Grammy’s house on the night before Thanksgiving, and trekking up to Maine every year to camp at Hermit Island – celebrating Christmas, for my mother, is about spending time with her kids, and her grandchildren. Passing along those traditions. I’m not willing to tell them that it’s not their holiday just because they’re Jewish. Yes, my children are observant Jewish kids but they’re also a part of my extended non-Jewish family as well. Christmas is part of what they inherit from my side of the family, along with a crappy sense of direction and a gift for sarcasm.
I celebrate it because I believe in peace on earth and goodwill towards men. And having a day to celebrate that is lovely to me. I celebrate it because I feel a little closer to everyone else on earth during this time of year – it seems to me that it’s the one time when we all try a little harder to be nicer, a little harder to appreciate the blessings we have. We don’t always succeed, and we aren’t all on the same page, but I sincerely think that the world is an amazing and beautiful and blessed place. On Christmas, I think we all feel that way.
It’s not about the shopping or the wrapping or the stress. And for me, it’s not about celebrating the birth of the Messiah. It’s about joy and peace – it’s closer to a celebration that we’re coming into the light. It’s no accident that the Solstice is on the twenty-first – we are literally getting a little more light, just a bit, every day. I think it’s also an important theme of Hanukkah, that each night, we light just one more candle. I think that’s worth celebrating. I think having a day to stop and just celebrate the magic, celebrate the beauty of family and friends, to eat candy canes and drink eggnog, to watch your kids open presents and be absolutely delighted is awesome. Christmas isn’t perfect, and it’s nowhere near as simple and as easy as it used to be for me, but it’s still an integral part of my year. And my life. I don’t want to miss it. Being Jewish has added so much to my life, so much meaning and resonance, it’s given my kids a framework to build a spiritual life upon. It’s given me Shabbat dinner, and Passover Seders and a community that I love. But I still love Christmas.
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.
Shalom, y’all! I’m Warren, and I’m going to be contributing to the Parenting blog here at InterfaithFamily. I’m the Jewish partner in my marriage — my wife was raised in a church-every-Sunday Episcopalian home — but I’m also the product of an interfaith marriage: my mother was raised as a Conservative Jew, and my father as a Baptist.
My wife, Moira, and I are expecting our first child in February (yay!). Added to this fun and exciting mix is the fact that I’m also a Reform Jewish camping professional. Jewish camp was a huge part of my life growing up, and continues to be, both personally and professionally. I’ve always intended for my children to be Jewish, but because of my family background, my spouse’s religion was never a huge concern.
I’ve been fortunate enough to marry a wonderful woman who’s agreed to join me in raising Jewish children, even though that’s not her faith. We were a long time in coming to these decisions, obviously, just like I’m sure most of you were. So, that’s a little about me & mine — looking forward to the conversation!
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The “December Dilemma” has never been a dilemma for me (though I learned a few years ago that it was an issue for my Jewish mother at first). My parents were always very clear that we were a Jewish household and we celebrated Christmas for my father. Moira and I anticipate doing much the same with our child(ren) in the future. I know we’ll create our own ChristmaHannumas traditions just as my parents did. Their compromise is delicious: latkes & fried chicken.
No, this year my December dilemma is my in-laws’ Christmas traditions in my house. Due to Moira’s pregnancy, for the first time in our relationship (10+ years), we won’t be traveling to either her parent’s home or mine for Christmas. Instead, we’re hosting her parents and siblings for Christmas in our otherwise Jewish home.
I’ve celebrated Christmas with them four or five times, but this will be the first time we host Christmas at all, and that makes me a little nervous.
One of the things I think Moira & I have done well over the years is to identify parts of Jewish traditions that we really enjoy and embrace. So while Shabbat in our home looks a lot like Shabbat at my parents’ home, it’s also importantly different and “ours.” Similarly with Pesach (Passover) & the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), Chanukah, etc.
However, because we’ve always traveled for Christmas, we’ve never developed a set of Christmas traditions. And while I like my in-laws a lot, their Christmas traditions are very different from the ones I grew up with, since theirs is a Christian home and mine was a Jewish one. And, as I mentioned before, trying to meet their expectations of what Christmas “should be” in our home makes me nervous.
What’s Christmas like for you all with your non-Jewish family?
My 4 year-old son’s BFF is a Christian boy named Connor. The two are not only inseparable; they have been in the same daycare class since 5 months of age.
I’ve been explaining to Oliver that Connor doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah. It’s been a fruitful conversation to talk about how we don’t share all of our holidays with some friends and family. Connor may not celebrate Hanukkah, but he does celebrate Christmas, and we want to be sure to wish Connor a Merry Christmas. So Oliver decided that he wanted to give Connor a Christmas gift, and he specifically wanted to make a Christmas ornament for Connor’s tree. So I pulled out some red felt, cut a large circle, and threaded a piece of silver ribbon through the top. “Ok,” I told him, “Now you have to decorate it.”
Oliver thought for about 10 seconds and then retrieved a marker and started drawing. The Christmas ornament has a giant blue menorah on it. Knowing Connor’s parents, they are going to be touched by Oliver’s Christmas ornament. And I’m sure they’ll hang it on their tree.
Saturday morning my family and I were at a children’s Shabbat service. Halfway through the service, our youth director asked the children to think of something they were excited to experience in the coming week. My son Oliver perked up and shot me an excited look, then reached his arm high into the air. I knew what was coming. We were going to cut down our Christmas tree the next day, and Oliver had been talking about it incessantly all week long. He is a child who hides his face and refuses to talk in Shabbat services, but Christmas trees could bring him out of his shell. I began sinking farther down in my seat and wishing this wasn’t happening.
Sure enough, the youth director called on Oliver first. “I’m excited to get our Christmas tree tomorrow!” he practically shouted. To the youth director’s credit, and probably in recognition of the number of interfaith families who are members of our synagogue, she asked Oliver whether or not we were going to cut the tree ourselves or buy it pre-cut. Oliver had no idea, but that didn’t stop him from saying we would buy it pre-cut. Then she said, “Sounds fun!” and moved on to the next child, who expressed his excitement for Hanukkah starting in a week. Which got Oliver excited, too. Hanukkah AND Christmas were so close? Amazing!
It was a nice moment, because she didn’t shoot him down or ignore his excitement. She did what a good youth director does and engaged him in conversation. Oliver was pleased that he participated. And I felt relieved and thankful for a youth director who understands interfaith families and excited little kids.
The episode reminded me of a Hanukkah/Christmas book called, “Light the Lights” by Margaret Moorman. I like it because it explores how both holidays use light during the darkest time of the year, and many of the sweetest interactions are about talking to your neighbors and observing your community as it prepares for the holidays. I especially like that you can’t tell which parent is the “Jewish” parent and which one is the “Christian” parent. Instead, both parents are equally participating and enjoying the holidays. It’s available at Amazon.com for under $10, and is part of the growing canon of books exploring both holidays.
So I just read the post from Benjamin Maron about “When is a Christmas Tree Just a Christmas Tree?” I can say that I totally relate to this. My daughters are being raised Jewish and their father/my husband, Alex, is Catholic and yes, we do have the Christmas tree and stockings and decorations. We don’t go to Christmas Mass though (or any mass really except if it’s for a family event on Alex’s side) and we don’t tell the Christmas story. We do have Christmas dinner with my husband’s family and there have been times my Jewish family has joined in as my daughter Kaitlyn’s birthday is Christmas Eve and my family rightfully wants to see her. We also do Chanukah, visit with my family, have latkes, play dreidel, watch the Maccabeats on You Tube (and we are seeing them in concert during Chanukah this year, how cool is that?) and listen to Adam Sandler’s Chanukah songs(although the first version is the best!).
My daughters identify as Jewish and respecting their dad’s and his family’s religion is not going to make them any less Jewish. My older daughter last December actually announced it in the middle of class. Her teacher had given out a work sheet to play a game to fill in the missing letters of Christmas carols and my daughter got up and said “Mr. Galvin, I don’t know this because I am JEWISH.” She then had me come in to her class that spring and do a lesson on Passover so her friends would understand her holidays. Celebrating another religion’s holiday doesn’t make you less; it makes you bigger than the sum of your parts. I am so proud of my girls and how they understand that what they are is not necessarily the same as everyone else and that that’s ok.
Do your children understand the differences and how do you explain it to them? I am still working on my five year old Megan understanding that men and women can be Jewish since she thinks that because her dad is Catholic all men must be Catholic and since mom is Jewish that all women must be Jewish.
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