December 27, 2013
When I learned that this year would be our last Christmas dinner I felt an unexpected sadness wash over me.
As a child of an interfaith family, I’m used to contradictions, compromises and confusing feelings. I’ve spent my entire adulthood building a Jewish life, my own Jewish traditions and trying to leave behind the few Christian traditions of my childhood. But they are the traditions of my childhood, and perhaps more important, they are traditions that the rest of my family still celebrates.
“Jewish plus Christmas” is how I’ve always described my upbringing. People seem to understand what that means, assume it involves Chinese food, some presents under a tree, maybe a family viewing of Love Actually. No church, no talk of a miracle. Just a superficial observance of the holiday.
When I first decided to fully embrace Judaism, I also wanted to break free of “plus Christmas,” starting my own traditions and rejecting those of my childhood. There would be no Christmas tree in my own apartment, and I wasn’t sure if I’d travel back home to celebrate anymore. But inevitably as December rolled around, I was pulled back into that family tradition.
Our neighbors across the street, more like family than friends, hosted us each year for Christmas dinner. We brought the appetizers and they provided the ham. There was a kids’ table, of course, and after dinner we’d open presents and delight in whatever the big ticket item was that year: a video game, a Barbie doll, or as we grew older, gift cards and computer accessories. In the lead-up to that big day we had spent hours huddled together over the JC Penny catalog, dog-earing pages and circling items we hoped Santa would bring us.
|Brianne (behind couch wearing glasses) with family and friends at the last neighborhood Christmas dinner. Credit: Keith Golinski, Fulvew Productions
After college I began keeping kosher
, which we explained to our family friends as basically vegetarian, and it made Christmas dinner complicated. The ham was obviously off-limits, but the side dishes were no-man’s land.
I had given a great deal of thought to keeping kosher, identifying all the favorite foods I would have to give up, as well as the ones that I didn’t care so much about. It wasn’t until that first Christmas keeping kosher when I realized my favorite holiday appetizer—my mom’s “crabbies”—were lost to me forever. After several failed attempts to make “krabbies,” their kosher-friendly cousin, “cheesies,” eventually made it into the rotation with the added benefit of appealing to the true vegetarians who have joined the families since the time of my kosher revolution.
I’ll never forget the year that the mashed potatoes I had been eyeing as a potential staple were surreptitiously topped with bacon bits. Not the ironically kosher kind, but actual bits of bacon that with each helping were mixed deeper and deeper into the bowl, rendering them hopelessly treyf.
A couple of years later I honed in on an onion dish that looked harmless enough. Halfway through the meal, those gathered began discussing the beef broth used to flavor the dish as I sang a song in my head trying to block out the reality that once again my attempt at kashrut had been foiled.
After each Christmas, I joked that I would someday write a book called The Adventures of Kashrut in an Interfaith Family.
This week we celebrated our final neighborhood Christmas dinner. Now that the kids are grown, it’s time for our friends to retire to a home they have built in the country. And though I’ve spent more than the last decade fighting this pull toward our family’s “plus Christmas” tradition, for this last time I chose to embrace it. With the fire crackling and my belly full with mac and cheese, I watched the first of our next generation--baby Zoe--enjoy her presents and the attention of all her aunts and uncles. And it all felt right.
The most important lesson I’ve learned in adulthood is that no matter which faith they are rooted in, we must embrace the family traditions that bring us joy, and that bring us together.
I may have made the decision long ago not to celebrate Christmas with my own children, but I cannot forsake my parents for making the choices they did. My upbringing is rooted in compromise, in compassion for others, and in an understanding that faith is about more than what’s for dinner.