Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
The December Delight
My wife Bonnie and I have been intermarried long enough now that our traditions together seem normal to us. This speaks volumes because hardly anything in an interfaith marriage is normal. Thirteen years after we said "I do," it's difficult for me to remember celebrating Christmas without Hanukkah. It's hard for me to even think back to a time without kids. Now Gabby is eight, and Molly is five. From the very beginning, Bonnie and I decided to raise our children in her faith, Judaism. While we were determined to make sure that our daughters knew that they were only Jewish (not both), we also decided that they would learn about my Christian holidays. As a result, we have created some wonderful memories and traditions of our own.
Although interfaith couples often refer to the last month on the calendar as the "December Dilemma," it isn't an either/or situation for us. I "help" my wife and daughters celebrate their holidays, and they "help" me with mine--much as someone would help a friend celebrate a birthday. It may not be your birthday, but you can give presents, pin the tail on the donkey, have cake, and take home a loot bag.
Trust me, it wasn't easy coming up with a solution that fit our needs. Bonnie and I spent a few years before we were married working it out. We knew that we wouldn't be able to celebrate Hanukkah and totally ignore Christmas. This turned out to be especially true since we live in my hometown with my Christian parents and siblings. My brother and sister both have spouses. They both have kids. They both have Christmas parties. Do Bonnie and I really want to deprive our daughters of a wonderful time at their cousins' house?
Fortunately in this world there are two sides to every latke. During Hanukkah, it's our turn to invite my family over for our annual party. My parents, siblings, and all the little cousins come over to our house to light the menorah, sing songs, and spin dreidels. Ironically, helping us celebrate Hanukkah has become a tradition for my extended family, as well. Over the years, we've all come to realize that this should be a fun time of year--not something we need to feel uneasy about. That would be like going to the mall, seeing Santa, and pretending he's not there. You don't have to sit in his lap. However, you can take a minute to enjoy the looks of fascination on children's faces. (Unless the little tikes are first timers. Then you can chuckle at how frightened they look.)
Of course, I realize that not everything always goes according to plan. For instance, Hanukkah comes so early this year that I'm afraid we might have Thanksgiving/Hanukkah issues to work out. We could call it the "November Dilemma." How could we justify eating fattening latkes when we just gained twenty pounds from all that turkey? Even though December is traditionally the month when interfaith families find out how well they can mix differing religious and cultural backgrounds, it doesn't always have to be a time of stress. We just try to keep our sense of humor. Sometimes Aunt Christie asks us if we go to church for Hanukkah. Sometimes I accidentally call my Protestant minister "Rabbi Livingston." Nobody's perfect.
As we help celebrate each other's respective holidays, the important part to us is that our daughters have grasped the concept that they and their mother are Jewish, and that I am Christian. Knowing this has enabled us to enjoy the season much more. When Gabby and Molly light the menorah, we feel warm inside. When our daughters give their Christian cousins a present on Christmas morning, we feel happy. When my thirty-three-year-old brother gets competitive at dreidel, we can't help but laugh. What a delight this month of December really is.