Reprinted from The Jewish Week with permission of the author. Visit http://www.thejewishweek.com.
Special to The Jewish Week.
Dec. 14, 2006
As the December holidays approach, I can't stop thinking about the boy who got Christmas presents from the family dog.
Interviewed years later, as an adult, the boy--the product of an interfaith marriage--complained that when his family joined the Christian relatives on Dec. 25, "my cousins would all be getting toys from Santa, and I'd be getting gifts from the dog because my Mom felt bad. … because she [thought I shouldn't] get gifts from Santa. Like that's just outrageous."
The quote appeared five years ago in a study about behavior of interfaith families--one arguing in part, that even those intermarried couples who say they are raising Jewish children give them a diluted Jewish identity by celebrating Christmas and, in some cases, Easter.
Which, of course, raises the question: can you be Jewish and still celebrate Christmas with your Christian friends, relatives--and, er, the dog? According to a new survey released by the Web magazine, Interfaithfamily.com, the answer is yes.
Although admittedly unscientific, given that it is based on an Internet survey of self-selected participants, the survey does give some insights into how families are managing the so-called December Dilemma. The majority of respondents raising Jewish kids report celebrating Christmas in some manner, generally quite secular, and--like my family does--only in someone else's house.
Indeed, keeping our home Christmas-free but celebrating the holiday elsewhere may be our generation's version of keeping a kosher home but eating treif at restaurants. On the one hand, it can be dismissed as hypocritical; on the other, it's a way of setting some boundaries, without completely segregating ourselves from non-Jewish friends and family.
But, like the mom who dreamed up replacing Santa with the family dog and ended up embittering her son, many of us are not sure just how to balance boundaries and openness at Christmastime. Her solution was clumsy, but I can empathize: If my kid gets gifts from Santa, will he still be Jewish? If he doesn't get gifts at all, will he feel he is being punished for being Jewish--and then wish he were Christian? If we skip the Christmas party altogether, will we alienate the Christian relatives?
In my own family, the Christmas boundaries are relatively easy to maintain. My husband Joe has no desire for a Christmas tree, and all our Christmas-celebrating relatives live in New Hampshire and Maine--whereas most of the Chanukah-celebrating ones are here in New York. Also, my daughters' Catholic cousins are all considerably older than them--the youngest is 11--so they tend to talk more about their iPods and Xboxes than about Santa.
One year, before Ellie was born, we arrived in town early for a family Christmas party where Santa suddenly appeared and began calling up each guest--young and old alike--to come sit on his lap. Joe and I hid in the kitchen to avoid the awkwardness of refusing the fat guy, until we discovered that he had been briefed ahead of time to exempt Jews and husbands of Jews.
Usually we don't get to New Hampshire until Christmas Eve, and although many his relatives attend Mass, no one pressures us to join them. The celebration at his mom's house is quite low key, basically just an open house where people drop by, chat a little, drink a lot and exchange gifts.
There is no caroling, no talk of Jesus or even Santa and no Christian symbols, except for a tiny fake tree and some miniature nativity scenes displayed alongside the miniature Currier & Ives-reminiscent villages my mother-in-law collects.
Now that she's 3, and more verbal than before, it will be interesting to see what Ellie makes of all this--and when she will realize that some people are Jewish, like her, and others are not.
However, since we live in a Christmas-obsessed country and Ellie attends a preschool where they spend more time learning Christmas songs than I would like, New Hampshire is hardly her only exposure to the big holiday. A Christmas tree stands in our co-op lobby, just a few feet from our apartment, and I must confess that Ellie, 6-month-old Sophie and I have passed many a cold or rainy December afternoon admiring its colorful lights and sparkly ornaments. Having a tree in the lobby is actually the best of both worlds--it satisfies any desire for a Christmas tree at home, yet since it's outside our door, we can still feel like our house is fully "kosher."
As for our out-of-the-house Christmas, I have to give Joe's Catholic family credit for being extremely Jewish-sensitive. Other than Joe's aunt, who always gives us a Christmas tree ornament, most of the family gives us neutrally wrapped gifts--his mom even gave us a menorah one year. Joe's siblings generally make a point of wishing Ellie and me a "Happy Holidays," or sometimes a carefully pronounced "Happy Chanukah." Our nieces and nephews demonstrate their Jewish creds by referencing Adam Sandler's Chanukah song. And last year, when Chanukah and Christmas overlapped, Joe's sister's family politely sampled my mediocre low-fat latkes, (nothing like the fried ones my Jewish brother-in-law makes) and listened as I led Ellie in a rendition of "Chanukah O Chanukah."
Sensing a good audience amid all the careful, ecumenical cheer, our Jewish daughter then smiled and launched into a boisterous solo of "Jingle Bells."
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Julie Wiener is a copy editor and freelance writer. Her column on interfaith life appears the third week of the month. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.