Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
I am Jewish and intermarried, to a man who was raised in an intermarried family. E's father is Jewish, his mother is Protestant; E and his sister were raised to appreciate both faiths, but without congregational affiliation. They were encouraged to make their own religious choices. Interestingly enough, E loved growing up with two faiths in his home, and now identifies as Christian; his sister says she might have preferred having the choice made for her, and now identifies as Jewish.
In the eight years we've been together, my husband and I have always celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. In fact, that's what he did for the twenty years before we met.
As a child, I enjoyed Christmas trees at friends' houses. I used to go to midnight mass with Patrick and Robby from down the street, who were altar boys; and I also went to their home for gingerbread and eggnog on Christmas day. In turn, they and their parents came to light the menorah with us at Hanukkah, and to have seder with us in the spring. In high school, I went to my best friend Miriam's house every year to decorate her tree; I came to love her family's boxes of ornaments as if they had been my own, and I learned their stories and their origins. To this day, hearing John Denver and the Muppets' Christmas album brings me back to her house in San Antonio and to the tree that occupied most of the living room.
But we never celebrated Christmas in my house. Instead, each year we brought out the Hanukkah paraphernalia: the giant plexiglass dreidel that we filled with gifts, the enormous mahogany menorah that my brother, the wood-worker, made the year I became Bat Mitzvah (assumed the privileges and responsibilities of an adult Jew) on Shabbat Hanukkah. I was raised to feel a little superior to Jews who assimilated to the point of having "Hanukkah bushes."
Still, once E and I started dating, it never occurred to me that we would rule out his holiday in favor of mine. Our partnership is based on an egalitarian ethic; we both work full-time, both cook and both clean. Neither of us gave up one last name for another (in fact, if the combined result of our last names weren't a unwieldy six syllables, we probably would have hyphenated).
Our household is equal parts of each of us in every way I can think of. Just as our Thanksgiving table features some of the dishes of his childhood and some of the dishes of mine, just as our bookshelves hold both of our collections of beloved books, why wouldn't our December combine both of our sets of traditions?
During the year we were engaged, I finally "came out" to my parents about having a Christmas tree. It didn't go very well. To them, no matter what arguments I made about the fir tree's pagan origins, I was taking a symbol of Christianity into my home. But that was almost four years ago, and I think over time they've come to realize that our blended holiday traditions, and our blended home, don't make me any less Jewish.
Having both a tree and a menorah is proof positive that my household is not exclusively Jewish. Neither is it exclusively Christian. We're interfaith; we're in a liminal space; we're not either/or, but both/and. So our holiday practices are a little amalgamated.
At Hanukkah, we light candles and sing blessings and have friends over for latkes with home-made applesauce. Some years E makes sweet potato and ginger and sesame seed latkes, too, which we've taken to jokingly calling "Sephardic." Sometimes I make sufganiyot, Israeli-style jelly donuts. We light the beautiful ceramic chanukiyyah (Hanukkah menorah) which we bought together when we got engaged, because I wanted us to have a menorah which would be ours, replacing the old ones each of us had brought to the household.
Around Christmas, we gather our friends to drink home-made eggnog, a staple of the Texas holidays of my childhood, and fold origami for the tree. We hang the half-dozen or so ornaments that we've been given over the last several years. We eat. Once, for laughs, Ethan made matzah ball soup for a Christmas party--and colored the dumplings red and green.
Most years, we spend the holiday itself with his family, going to midnight services at his high school's chapel, exchanging gifts on Christmas Day. I'm always a little tickled by the fact that Christmas is the one holiday Christians celebrate the way Jews do, starting with the Eve and drawing to a close as day's candle flickers.
When the holidays fall together, we eat latkes at my in-laws' Christmas dinner. One year they asked me to say the grace before the meal, and I came out with the hamotzi (blessing over the meal). The nice thing about having interfaith in-laws is, they're used to having the two holidays be bedfellows.
Our December practices now mirror those of my in-laws, inasmuch as we, like them, now celebrate both of these winter festivals. (Some years we manage to commemorate Solstice, too--I'm always relieved when the days stop getting shorter.)
We don't yet have children, nor do we have easy answers about how their sense of religious identity will be shaped. Halakhically (according to Jewish law) they will be Jewish; but I want them to inherit the joy and wonder I find in being Jewish, too (even if that means passing on my skepticism and religious frustrations). Still, I'm not the only one in this partnership with cherished fantasies of passing heritage on to the next generation. E will want them to love his cherished Protestant hymns, just as I'll want them to thrill at the sound of trope. Like I said: no easy answers. I think how we treat December--by ourselves, and eventually with our children--is the least of our concerns.
Neither my husband nor I have much literal belief in the stories of the two holidays, but I think we both appreciate them for their larger truths: that a spark of the divine is incarnate in humanity, that a small band of freedom fighters can defeat even the most powerful tyrant, that there's a universal human need for togetherness and light in the coldest and darkest of times. I hope that's what our paired holiday traditions affirm.