Suzanne Koven practices medicine and lives with her Italian-American Jewish family in the Boston area. Her website is suzannekovenmd.com.
What Will We Do About Christmas? (After the Grandparents Are Gone)
Originally published 2006. Republished December 10, 2013
"What will we do about Christmas?" my 12-year-old son asked recently.
"We'll do what we always do," I answered. By that I meant that we'd drive 500 miles to my in-laws' place where we'd eat dinner on a holly patterned tablecloth, listen to CDs of Bing Crosby and Johnny Mathis singing carols and, the next morning, exchange wrapped gifts under a tree loaded with lights and tinsel. Then, after a few days' delightful visit, we'd drive 500 miles back to our own holly-, carol- and tinsel-less home. We all look forward to the annual ritual. I particularly love the fact that I get to celebrate Christmas and yet still maintain a Jewish home which, to me as a relatively non-observant Jew, means not "without pork and shellfish" so much as "without Christmas." By having Christmas at my in-laws' house I'm able to have my plum pudding and eat it, too, so to speak.
So what did my son mean? Why would we "do" anything about such a felicitous arrangement?
"No, Mom," my son said. "What will we do about Christmas in the future… after Baba is gone?"
My son has this way of asking questions that make me realize I haven't thought very hard about something. "Baba," an Italian nickname for grandfather, is what my kids call my father-in-law. He's healthy and active, thank goodness, but, now in his late 80s, he can't go on forever--a fact of which we were all made sadly aware when his wife, my wonderful mother-in-law and my kids' beloved "Nonna" (Italian for grandmother), passed away a few months ago. My son was asking an obvious question that I, myself, had avoided asking for well over 20 years of marriage: Did I have any relationship with Christmas other than as a holiday I shared with my in-laws? And, if I did, what was it? What, indeed, would we do with Christmas?
I often tell Christian friends--just for the fun of seeing the incredulity on their faces--that as a child I could not have told you the date that Christmas falls upon. I grew up in a Jewish enclave of Brooklyn. My neighbors, my school friends, our teachers, our parents' friends, my doctor, my dentist and the guy who owned the corner candy store were all Jewish. Christmas was, to me, an annual party to which I had not been invited and about which I was not aware enough to care. What little awareness I did have was entirely devoid of religious connotation; the giant Santas and reindeer on the roofs of the houses where the Irish kids lived, the "snow" sprayed on the Italian greengrocer's glass storefront, the Rockettes at the Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular to which my Orthodox Jewish grandparents (perplexingly, in retrospect) took me every December.
In high school and college I no longer lived among Jews, but Christmas was still easily ignorable. The winter vacation was taken up with ski trips or catching up on term papers. If I marked December 25 at all it was in a Chinese restaurant, partaking in that clichéd and often joked about yearly commiseration between two non-Christmas celebrating peoples.
Then I met my future husband, and we fashioned a mutual vision of interfaith life, made easier by the fact that neither of us had much in the way of faith. My interest in Judaism was primarily based on culture and family, and his affection for his Italian heritage had nothing to do with Catholicism. We would be part of a synagogue community, raise Jewish children who would have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, eat Italian food at home and celebrate Christmas with my husband's family. Twenty-five years and three Italian-Jewish children later, it has all worked out as planned.
The problem was, as my son inadvertently pointed out, we hadn't planned far enough. Consigning Christmas to my in-laws could not last forever. As I pondered my son's question I imagined a December without my in-laws and concluded that, sadly, there would be no more Christmas for us. I could not see overcoming my own deep discomfort with having a Christmas tree, stockings or even Bing Crosby in my home.
But was I really answering my son's question? He didn't ask what I would do with Christmas, but what we would do. This wasn't, as they say, just about me. First, there is my husband to consider. His happy associations with Christmas run as least as deep as my discomfort with it. Could he imagine a Christmas without a tree any more easily than I can imagine a tree in my home? And can I really expect my children who, unlike me, did not grow up Christmas-less, to give up the holiday now?
Maybe, I think, when it becomes necessary (in many years, I hope) we will find a new Christmas tradition, one which honors both my sense of a Jewish home and our family's warm feeling about the holiday. Perhaps we will still travel to someplace with a Christmas tree; other relatives, a country inn… Paris. And after that, when my children grow up? I can imagine them marrying Jews who don't celebrate Christmas and, at that point, holding on to the holiday in happy memories only. And I can equally imagine them marrying non-Jews and finding, as we did, some way to celebrate Christmas which does not conflict with their identities as Jews.
A more traditional Jew would, of course, find this to be an oxymoron, an absurdity. What sort of Christmas would not compromise a Jew's identity? To this I answer that the Christmases we have shared with my husband's family have deepened my children's bond with their paternal grandparents beyond measure. The tree, the lights, the carols, were the props--the love of one generation for another was the point. You could call this a rationalization. I call it entirely consistent with Jewish values.
For outreach professional Rosanne Levitt's response to this article, read Planning "Far Enough."