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The phone rang and I heard my dad’s apprehensive voice. “Hi Sarah. I have a bit of a strange question for you. We are thinking ahead about Easter and we would like to have everyone over for brunch and an Easter egg hunt. We would of course love to have you there, but we know you’re raising Shira Jewish and we don’t want to offend you by extending the invitation.”
I cut him off before he could even muster up the right words for the question that would follow. I was ready for this moment and said, “We will be there. I’m glad you brought this up, since we haven’t had a conversation about it yet. Yes, we are raising her Jewish, but we want her to understand that her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins celebrate other holidays. We won’t observe them in any religious capacity, but whenever invited, we want her to participate in those holidays to appreciate what her loved ones celebrate.”
He and I both seemed relieved that the conversation, albeit brief, finally took place. My daughter is 2 years old and we’re now on our third round of celebrating Easter. We just got through her third Christmas as well. I found the timing of the conversation to be funny because we made it this far without having a need for it.
Then I remembered that earlier in the day, my dad had been over at our house and Shira was sharing leftover challah with him. I told him that making and eating the challah is her favorite part of our weekly Shabbat routine. He could see the challah cover, kiddush cup and Shabbat candlesticks proudly standing on our kitchen table. I understand now that up until that moment, he didn’t realize that we practiced Jewish traditions together as a family on such a regular basis. He knew we had done the Simchat Bat ceremony and we observe Passover and Hanukkah, but other than the celebrations and holidays we’ve included him in, our Jewishness is mostly kept rather quiet and simple within our own home.
It must have struck him that we were indeed raising her Jewish in the everyday, not just on the seemingly big holidays. He may have been surprised to come to that realization because it was in stark contrast to how I was raised.
Like my daughter, I was born into an interfaith family. My mother, now deceased, was Jewish, and my father is Protestant. Growing up, we celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, but that was the extent of the religiously affiliated holidays we celebrated as a family. None of our holiday observances felt religious in nature. Our celebrations were much more about culture and family traditions. As a young child, I didn’t feel any strong religious identity.
After my mom passed, my dad remarried someone who was Catholic. With this change in our household religious dynamic, any element of Judaism that I once had some connection to had to continue on my own will. My dad and stepmom were both supportive of me lighting the Hanukkah menorah, going to Friday night Shabbat services with friends and joining a local Jewish youth group to explore my roots. They always joined in and happily participated whenever my mom’s family invited us to a Passover seder.
At the same time, I joined them in their celebrations of Christmas and Easter. I had celebrated them when my mom was around, so it felt normal to continue celebrating those occasions with my family. For this reason, I couldn’t see raising my own family without Christmas and Easter. These holidays have always been a part of my upbringing. While my husband and I are raising our family Jewishly, in a more religious and observant way than how I was raised, we both grew up celebrating these Christian holidays and we want our daughter as well as any future children to understand that these holidays are an important piece of our family fabric.
We hadn’t been intentionally avoiding the subject with our families, but we knew that with Shira being so young, her understanding of differing religions, rituals and celebrations is still very limited. My husband and I knew we would need to address it with her, and our respective families, once she reached an age of more awareness. We were preparing for the topic to come up eventually, and this challah-snacking Shabbat day just happened to present the perfect opportunity.
By Elizabeth Vocke
My husband jokes that I only married him so I could finally celebrate Christmas. And I admit that I do love Christmas. I love the anticipation and excitement, the coziness of the season, the decorations. I also love Hanukkah, but I think it’s more difficult to create that same sense of excitement, though for the sake of our 8-year-old daughter, we do try.
It’s taken all 11 years of marriage to figure out how to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, and we still don’t have it all figured out. This year will be even more difficult because Hanukkah starts on Christmas Eve. I like to make a big deal out of the first and last nights of Hanukkah, but this year I don’t see that happening.
I vividly remember the first year I decorated our house for Christmas. I enjoyed creating a snow scene using white and blue ornaments in a crystal bowl, plus a beautiful white garland. It didn’t feel religious, just festive, but was definitely meant for Christmas.
My husband walked in and said, “Oh, look, you decorated for Hanukkah!” Well, no, actually. I decorated for your Christmas holiday, dude!
In fact, decorating for Hanukkah was not something I thought Jewish people even did, and it’s only been bit by bit over the years that I’ve started adding Hanukkah items to our holiday decorations.
Fast forward to today and we have a house loaded with Christmas decorations, plus menorahs and dreidels, and I’ve made peace with it all. But we still don’t have all the answers.
We do have annual traditions.
We have a big Hanukkah celebration with my family that is fun and festive and raucous. We host a latkes and hot dogs party for the neighborhood kids (most are not Jewish), and every year I go into my daughter’s class and teach the students about Hanukkah and how to play dreidel. I love these things.
Every year we also drive around looking at decorations on Christmas Eve, watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and enjoy a big Christmas celebration with my husband’s family. I love these things, too.
Yes, our holidays are filled and busy—but fun! And so by now we should have it all figured out, right? Well, no.
Every year we discuss (debate?) if we’re going to church for Christmas Eve with my mother-in-law. My husband is actually the one who doesn’t want to go. Ironic, right? Some years we go, and some we don’t.
Christmas Eve, a night I really love, is often rushed and stressed trying to cram everything in (see above). Hanukkah still sometimes feels anti-climactic, and we’ve been known to forget to light candles a night or two. Hanukkah presents are also often less exciting. Let’s face it—one present just doesn’t compare to a pile. In fact, our daughter tells us that she asks Santa for the big, expensive presents because she figures he’ll bring them to her, and for Hanukkah she’s open to whatever we want to give her. Little does she know.
So, like most things in life, in marriage—and especially an interfaith marriage—we’ll keep trying and tweaking until we get it right. And by that time our daughter may be married with kids of her own!
By Lela Casey
As the only Jewish kid in my small town in Pennsylvania, Christmas was the loneliest time of year. Most of my classmates, and even some of my teachers, were almost entirely unfamiliar with Judaism. Perhaps if I’d been braver, I could have explained to them why I felt uncomfortable singing “Christ the Savior is Born” in music class, or painting Nativity scenes in art or writing notes to Santa in writing class.
But, I was shy kid. And I’d had enough pennies thrown at me and been accused of killing Jesus too many times to speak up. So I laid low, hummed along, asked Santa for a puppy.
Still, the loneliness remained. One of my earliest memories is of driving home with my parents on Christmas Eve. Each time we passed another sparkling house, another lit up Christmas tree, another window full of smiling children, I shrunk a little further into my seat. By the time we got home to our own dark house, I was so heartbroken that I went straight to bed.
To my young soul, it felt like a punishment. It was as if I’d done something wrong to be missing out on all the fun that every other kid I knew got to enjoy.
When I would ask my mom if we could put up a tree or have a special dinner on Christmas, she would get upset. Christmas might seem like an American holiday, but at its heart it was a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Celebrating a man as if he were God would be breaking the first commandment, and perhaps even worse than that, assimilating.
It was difficult, as a kid, to understand what was so terrible about assimilating. What could be bad about getting presents, hanging lights and singing songs? It’s not as if celebrating Christmas would negate being Jewish. It would just be a way to feel part of a world that seemed to include everyone but me.
It wasn’t until college that I met other people who didn’t celebrate Christmas. The first Christmas eve I spent with my Jewish friends was liberating. We ordered Chinese food, watched movies, and reveled in the joy of being together.
I felt a deep sense of belonging and pride and a little bit of confusion to be celebrating Christmas with other people who didn’t celebrate Christmas. Because, really, that’s what we were doing. It may not have been with songs of Jesus or presents from Santa, but there we were, all gathered on the supposed day of Jesus’ birth, having a grand old time.
Was that assimilation? I wasn’t sure. But, whatever it was, it wasn’t lonely.
When I got married to my husband who is not Jewish, my feelings on Christmas were still shaky. By that point I’d experienced several Christmases away from my family—some with my Jewish friends, some with my husband-to-be and his family. Each celebration had been vastly different—but they all included one important element—community. Just being with other people, whether we were eating Chinese food or belting out “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,” kept Christmas from feeling lonely.
Still, I had difficulty envisioning what Christmas would be like when we had our own kids. Was it important to keep Christmas out of our house completely? Would that alienate my husband? Make my kids feel that same aching loneliness that I felt as a kid?
We have three kids now, and our Christmas traditions have evolved over the years. Some years we go to my in-laws’ house and have a big dinner with family, and some years we stay home and order Chinese food. There’s no talk of Jesus or Santa, but there are presents and laughter and music and it’s never lonely.
It feels sometimes like I’ve copped out—given in to the assimilation that my mother was so fearful of. And, perhaps I have. But, the truth is my kids live in America and have a father who isn’t Jewish. Christmas is not some alien cultural phenomenon that they have to adapt to; it is an integral part of their world, their heritage. Celebrating Christmas is not so much assimilation as it is acknowledgment of the many components of themselves.
I feel confident in the strong Jewish roots I have given my children. They’ve whispered prayers into the Western Wall in Jerusalem, they’ve learned the aleph, bet and stories of Jacob and Isaac in Hebrew School, they’ve helped me clean the house of chametz on Passover and light the menorah on Hanukkah.
My kids are Jewish—and, if one day they chose to take a different path, it won’t be because they enjoyed a joyful night with family at the end of December.
Lela Casey is a mother of three children living in Bucks County, PA. Being raised by a fiery Israeli mother and a gentle farmer in the middle of nowhere lent her a unique perspective on Judaism. She holds degrees from both Penn State University and Rhode Island College. You can find her work on many websites including kveller.com, pjlibrary.com, elephantjournal.com, brainchildmag.com and femininecollective.com.