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.
'Tis the Season to Be Ironic
When my wife and I first told my Protestant parents, over 15 years ago, that we were going to raise our children Jewish, I'm sure that they must have felt a pang of regret. As we explained how we really wanted them to be active participants in their grandkids' lives, any regret or sadness fortunately turned into love and support. However, I bet they still wondered how Christmas would work out. Ten years after our first daughter was born, the reality of how my parents spend Christmas is a bit surprising to them--and even to me.
When I was a kid, celebrating Christmas meant having my grandparents stay at our house. It meant a big dinner Christmas Eve, and then waking up the next morning to twinkling lights on the tree, a nice fire in the fireplace, wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen, and, of course, all those presents. My brother, sister, and I would take down our hand-knit stockings and dig in. We also had two weeks without school to get to know our presents on a more personal level.
That's how I wanted Christmas to stay forever. Unfortunately, we grew older, moved out, and married. This meant a change in the status quo. For the first few years, it signaled just a slight change in plans. The only real alteration was that we drove home to my parents' house, rather than already being there. My siblings and I (and spouses) would spend the night Christmas Eve and open presents Christmas morning. With my wife being Jewish, we made it clear that she was only there to "help" me celebrate my holiday. My family "helped" her celebrate her holiday of Hanukkah earlier in the month.
Then, my wife and I gave birth to a Jewish daughter. My wife has always celebrated Hanukkah. But now, having a child meant that we could jazz up the holiday a lot more. We decided to add an annual Hanukkah dinner to our December calendar. Because my in-laws live out of state, we began inviting my whole Christian family over to help us celebrate. They live in town, so it's more convenient. Plus, it's a fun way to include them and teach them a little about Judaism. We set up a tradition that our daughter, and subsequently her younger sister, would receive their big Hanukkah presents at this annual party.
So what happened that first Christmas after our daughter was born? All of us still drove to my parents' house. Not a whole lot changed. We continued to emphasize that my wife and daughter were not celebrating both. However, it was okay for them to help me celebrate my holiday by being with me (and eating a few too many Christmas cookies).
A few years later, my Christian siblings gave birth to Christian daughters. Not unexpectedly, they wanted to create that Christmas magic in their own homes. Suddenly, we found the arrangements changing. My siblings decided to spend Christmas Eve at their own homes. They wanted Santa to come down their own chimneys. I think this decision came as a bit of a shock to my mom and dad. However, my parents soon understood, as this was how it was done when they were raising a young family.
Today, it is just my nuclear family that spends the night on Christmas Eve with my parents. My brother, sister, and their families don't join us until around noon Christmas day. It is ironic how, as the only person in the family married to a Jewish woman, my family is the one spending Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with my parents. My mom and dad take a lot of comfort in having their grandkids--their Jewish grandkids--help them celebrate Christmas. My mom reads them 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. My daughters help their grandpa set out cookies for Santa. We also go sledding in the woods, we drink hot chocolate by the fire, and, of course, we bake more cookies.
I look at all of this and think how lucky I am that I married someone Jewish so that I don't have to miss out on this special time with my parents. I keep a lot of my childhood traditions this way. I get to use the same hand-knit stocking that I've had since I was born. I get to enjoy my parents' tree with all of the same ornaments that I grew up with. It's a warm, fuzzy feeling during a warm, fuzzy time of year.
It is ironic that I used to think marrying outside my religion meant that I'd have to give up these particular traditions. It is ironic that my children are firmly Jewish in their upbringing, yet they can help their Christian grandparents enjoy Christmas in ways that their Christian cousins cannot. It is ironic how the relationship that was supposed to be so problematic is the relationship fulfilling so many needs.