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Negotiating Christmas

A few months after my husband and I started dating, we had a discussion about religion over dinner. Eric told me that he felt strongly about raising his children Jewish, even if he married someone not Jewish. Why, I posed, can't a child be raised with both religious traditions? Wouldn't learning about how Christians and Jews celebrate holidays foster a sense of open-mindedness and acceptance? Eric felt that in order to maintain a strong Jewish community, it was essential for children to be raised in only the Jewish tradition. In his mind, being raised with two faiths meant that, eventually, the child might grow up to have no religious or cultural identity.

Once our relationship became more serious, we felt we should decide how we would handle raising our children before we became officially engaged. Being a non-practicing Catholic, I agreed to raise our children Jewish, since Eric felt so closely tied to the cultural aspects of Judaism. However the one unresolved issue in our discussions at this early stage of our exploration was how to negotiate the December dilemma. Perhaps we focused on this issue because it was November and my emotions were running high with Christmas around the bend. Or perhaps the issue took on greater importance because it was the most simplistic, tangible interfaith topic to tackle.

I insisted on celebrating Christmas--tree and all--because although I had agreed to raise our children Jewish, I wanted them to have one tradition in the house that was representative of my religious upbringing. I hoped they would cherish the Christmas traditions of my childhood: decorating a tree; singing carols; leaving cookies and milk for Santa. I felt that if my children did not have this, that they would be missing something very special, and that I would be surrendering the one last vestige of my own family's religious traditions.

Eric thought it important that a Jewish family not have a Christmas tree. He felt that our children would not be truly Jewish if they were to celebrate Christmas in our home. He believed that a Christmas tree represented Christianity in a significant way. I argued that it is a secular symbol and that it would not make our children any less Jewish. Eric had no sense or understanding of the significance of Christmas in my life. Likewise, I had no idea how he could view such an innocuous symbol to be an icon as symbolic as a crucifix. We were at an impasse. We had heated arguments, each supporting our own position and not understanding the other's perspective.

Now, many years later, I am married to Eric and the mother of our one-year-old son, Evan. We do not have a Christmas tree during the holiday season, and we celebrate only Jewish traditions in our household. Although I am not formally converting to Judaism, we plan to join a local Reform synagogue that is open to interfaith families. How, then, did we arrive at this point?

Eventually, Eric decided that he was open to celebrating Christmas, tree and all, in our home if it was that important to me. He loved me too much to let this one issue harm our relationship. That was all I needed to hear. I relaxed, the issue became a non-issue, and we became engaged. Shortly thereafter, we decided to attend an interfaith marriage discussion group. It was remarkable how trivial the issue of a Christmas tree became once we delved into larger issues such as our concepts of faith and the values we wanted to pass down to our children. I firmly believe that we would not have reached this stage if Eric hadn't been open to my sharing Christmas in our home. I realized that an attitude of openness and acceptance in my partner was far more important to me than actually getting what I thought I wanted all along. Once he told me the tree didn't matter to him, it didn't matter to me.

I have now gone through two holiday seasons without any trace of Christmas in our home. We go to my sister's house to celebrate Christmas, and we enjoy seeing the tree and opening the gifts my family so lovingly chose for us. In our own home, we light Hanukkah candles. Ironically, I am grateful that I am not lugging a tree up to our apartment and then struggling to keep our son Evan from crawling up to it and tearing it down. I also feel that having a tree would somehow not fit in with our lifestyle these days. Having a baby has changed our lives in so many wonderful ways. It has also made me aware of how insignificant having a tree during December would be to us as a family.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods.
Rena Mello

Rena Mello lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her husband Eric and their one-year-old son Evan. She has worked in the field of education for over ten years and is currently an international admissions officer at a local university.

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