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The Christmas Tree Mitzvah

As we drove through town last December, my daughters, two and five, looked for house decorations. The five year old provided a running commentary from the back seat: "That house is Jewish. . . That one is Christian. . . Jewish. . . Probably Jewish. . . Wow! Definitely Christian." Given her lights-on-house criteria, she has an inflated perception of the number of Jewish households in our town.  

December is a month that tests my husband's and my perceptions of what a Jewish household should be--or rather, what an interfaith household raising Jewish children should be. What should our house look like, and what should be going on inside it during the month of December? Each year, those questions are a source of constant discussion and consideration.

Before we married, my Jewish husband and I (a Catholic) agreed that neither of us was likely to convert to the other's religion. We easily agreed that future children would be raised Jewish. So our girls were welcomed with Jewish birth ceremonies, and our family celebrates each Shabbat (Sabbath), as well as the range of Jewish holy days and festivals. We are trying to teach our girls the importance of tzedakkah (charity), mitzvot (good deeds), and tikkun olam (repairing the world). As the non-Jewish member of the household, I am comfortable with this arrangement because these core values are in harmony with my own beliefs.

My husband and I also agree that while the girls identify as Jewish, they should understand what it means to be Christian. I want them to appreciate my Christian traditions and beliefs. The girls and Barry help me celebrate my holidays, just as I help them celebrate theirs. Our inclusive nature becomes a conundrum during December however, when Hanukkah and Christmas, the two holidays celebrated, seem to be in direct conflict.

Christmas is such a visible part of American culture that some argue it has become a secular holiday. Religious Christians deride the commercialization of the holiday and emphasize that its importance lies in Jesus being God's gift to the world. The secular and religious approaches combine to make the holiday's presence unavoidable. Christmas decorations and music start right after Halloween. Towns, schools, and work provide breaks and festivities, the names of which have only recently dropped "Christmas" in favor of "Winter."

On the other hand, Hanukkah, according to many of the Jewish books I've read, is a relatively minor Jewish festival. As important as remembering the miracle of the oil, the holiday commemorates a successful battle against being assimilated. The most appropriate non-Jewish holiday with which to compare Hanukkah would be the Fourth of July--not Christmas. To celebrate Hanukkah, our family lights candles, spins dreidels for chocolate gelt (coins), eats latkes (potato pancakes), and gives gifts. We also read stories about Judah Maccabee and talk about the bravery of fighting for beliefs and the importance of guarding against mindless assimilation.

Knowing all this, I constantly question my decision to bring anything related to Christmas into our house. Is it an affront to my family's Judaism to ask that they help me celebrate Christmas in our home? How much am I diluting my children's Jewish identity by allowing them to believe in Santa Claus during their younger years? Will my children be missing a critical piece of the Jewish experience by not experiencing the full exclusionary tones of the season--the overriding assumption that December is about Christmas?

My girls' best interests are at the forefront of my decisions. But to be honest, I don't believe that my girls would benefit from having a mother who relinquishes her identity to strengthen theirs. I believe it is important that they realize that I need to care for myself, too. So, I identify the holiday traditions that are important to me and adjust them for our interfaith family. I work to help the girls understand the meaning behind the symbolism of the Christmas traditions that I celebrate.

When I was a child, the excitement of believing in Santa Claus was heady and magical stuff. My husband and I agreed to take the "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" stance and emphasize the power and joy of giving. We tell our children that St. Nicholas was a real man who became a legend, and we share historical and cultural perspectives on the story. We don't discourage their belief in Santa Claus, and I have them put up their stockings next to mine. The small gifts that fill their stockings in the morning identify no giver. On the other hand, we don't actively build Santa up or use him for behavior modification during December. We emphasize the facts and leave room for the magic of make believe.

Holiday food evokes powerful memories for me, and I believe food is a great way to introduce traditions to the girls. I have learned to make honey cakes, latkes (fried pancakes), matzah ball soup, chopped liver and challah. By the same token, our family makes a gingerbread house together every year. The Christmas dinner I serve my family mirrors the festive table of my youth.

I keep Christmas decorations to a minimum and try to stick with themes from nature. I'm willing to give up overtly Christian items such as angels or the Madonna with Child, since I know they make my husband uncomfortable. For several years I even decorated a fake ficus tree instead of buying an evergreen. The choice saved money, and there were no annoying needles to clean up.

But last year, the emotional turmoil of September 11 made me nostalgic for times past. My preschoolers' increasing demands made me feel tired and taken for granted. I grumpily reflected on how often I had expended energy on the Jewish holidays, yet had not put the same energy into my Christian holidays.

I mentioned my desire for a live Christmas tree to my husband. He reminded me that the ficus would be a lot easier. December is always a busy month for us, and he was under increased pressure to complete projects at work. When I asked my girls about getting a real tree, they became upset since they had only decorated the ficus tree in the past. Even with a vote of three to one in favor of the ficus, I drifted off to sleep one night deciding that I'd get a real Christmas tree for myself. I'd take the girls and get a live evergreen tree the next day while my husband was working.

I woke up later that night with a horrible stomach bug. I was miserable. Barry and the girls tried to take care of me the next day, but there wasn't much for them to do except let me sleep. Later in the day I awoke feeling completely wiped out, but like a person again. I realized there were more important things than getting a Christmas tree--such as feeling healthy, for example.

I slowly eased my way down the stairs and heard Barry and the girls laughing and playing. As I entered the living room, I caught sight of a cute, short, real Christmas tree set up in the corner. Unable to make me feel physically better, the three of them had decided to cheer me up by getting the tree. I sat down and sobbed because I was so touched. It was the best Christmas gift they could have given me.

As for my concerns that my girls will be confused about their identities, I'm starting to get answers from them. Recently I told my daughter that we could not start planning her January birthday party until after Christmas. She promptly corrected me. "No Mom, that's your holiday. Since I'm Jewish, I can start planning it after Hanukkah." The other day she commented on how unfair it is that there are so many Christmas decorations, "Don't they know that some of us aren't Christian? Where are the Hanukkah decorations?"

Knowing my girls as well as I do, I am convinced that their Jewish identity is strong. Therefore, I believe it might be all right to put a live Christmas tree on my holiday wish list again this year.

Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. 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. A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Yiddish for "money," usually refers to chocolate coins given on Hanukkah (and used as bets during the dreidel game).
Teresa McMahon

Teresa McMahon, Ph.D., lives with her husband Barry Fishman and two children, Claire and Emily, in Michigan, where she is a member of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. In addition to singing and dancing in her family room with her daughters, she is an educational researcher.

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