Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
Dan and I had been together for nearly three years before I saw his Christmas tree. We'd spent our first two winter holiday seasons traveling, first to Florida, to see my parents, and the following year, to Amsterdam. And so it had been easy to avoid the whole subject of a Christmas tree. That is until about a month or so before the third Christmas.
"I'm going to get a tree this year," he told me." I've missed having one and it's important to David." David is Dan's son. I heard the words, but I'll admit that at the time, I didn't listen.
"You're in denial," my eighteen-year-old daughter, Mollie said. "You like to pretend Dan is Jewish, but he's not. Of course he'll want a Christmas tree."
"But I don't see why. He's not Jewish, but he's not Christian either. And besides he likes Judaism. Ask him what we did in Amsterdam--we visited Anne Frank's house, the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue and the Museum of the Resistance."
"But that still doesn't mean he's Jewish. You should suck it up."
And she was right, I didn't get it. Since Dan had stopped considering himself a Catholic nearly thirty years ago and since he participates willingly in Jewish holidays and festivals, I really didn't get why he would want a tree. Not until he explained that having a Christmas tree was something that reminded him of his childhood, that connected him to his parents, that connected David to them. Then I got it. I just wasn't ready for the tree.
Now I should step back a moment and say that I never knew anyone who had a Christmas tree. Or more to the point, I never really knew anyone who was Christian. I went to a public elementary school where every child was Jewish. My middle school and summer camp and even high school and college were populated by Jews, so much so that I was always a bit perplexed by all the hoopla about Christmas on TV and in the media. Now, in my mid-fifties, I was meeting Christmas.
As announced, Dan got a tree--and the first step was to decorate it. He asked me to join him in this project a week or so before Christmas. Surely I was very familiar with Christmas ornaments, having seen them everywhere from craft shows to department and discount stores. Still, I was not quite prepared for Dan to take out a box of ornaments that he had assembled over the years. I understood, when I saw them, that they represented his history and ties to his now deceased parents. I respected and valued those ties, but the idea of placing ornaments on a tree felt very odd and foreign to me. For the first time in the nearly three years I had known him, Dan felt like a stranger.
And all the stranger still, the following week. As Christmas morning approached, Dan--in his typical gentle, gracious, non-demanding way--made it clear that he wanted me to share Christmas morning with him and with David. I wasn't exactly sure what that meant, but I imagined there would be a pile of presents for David under the tree and that we would sit there while he opened them. I suppose that if David had been a young child, that ritual would not have felt so strange, but the prospect of watching an eighteen year old unwrap presents that were scattered around a tree felt very odd, very foreign, very uncomfortable.
The morning came, saved by Sara, David's girl friend. Sara is Jewish and unlike me, she was not raised in an all Jewish world. She seemed perfectly at ease with Christmas, presenting herself as a comfortable visitor. Resisting the temptation to take on the role of ill-at-ease stranger, I decided to take my cues from Sara.
As anticipated, there was a pile of presents. Most had David's name on them, but a few were for Dan and Sara and to my incredible dis-comfort, two had my name on them. One, it turned out, was a box of hand cream from David. That was fine. But the other was a long thin box from Dan.
He's bought me a bracelet," I thought. "A bracelet that I probably won't like. And on Christmas. Why would he buy me a Christmas present when he knows I am Jewish."
My impulse was to pout, perhaps to cry, but when you are in your mid-fifties, you've figured out that that is pretty unappealing. So I reminded myself to stay calm and I proceeded to open the present. I should have read the card first, but I didn't. And so I came upon the mezuzah without warning. A lovely, hand crafted mezuzah, made all the more beautiful by the startling moment.
Fighting back tears that neither David nor Sara--nor possibly even Dan--would understand, I read the card... "I hope we will one day live together and that when we do, we will hang this mezuzah at the front door of our home. Love, Dan. "
And so it was to be. Dan moved into what had been my home the following summer and we affixed his gift to me on our bedroom door. And then came Christmas.
Once again, Dan raised the "T" word a few weeks in advance.
"I want a tree, but how will you feel about having it? Here?"
"It's your house, too, and it's your holiday."
I meant the words when I said them, but I felt uncomfortable as well. From my experience last year, I had come to accept the tree, the ornaments... and almost the rituals of Christmas morning. But what would it mean to have a tree in our home--one that was lighted and could be seen from our window? What would my Jewish friends (namely, all my friends) think? What would the neighbors, who are both Jewish and non-Jewish, think? And most of all, what would this mean for my Jewish daughters?
"We could put it in the den." Dan offered.
Our den is small and dark and barely visible from the street. True, we could hide Dan's tree, but that wasn't the point. He had graciously, enthusiastically celebrated Hanukkah with me several weeks earlier. He joins me in lighting Shabbat candles each Friday night. He goes with me to every Holocaust film and every related exhibit I can find. Dan's Christmas tree would sit centerstage in our living room.
In two weeks Dan and I will be married. In the home with mezuzahs on each door and a tree each Christmas, we will say our wedding vows. As part of the ceremony we have chosen to say a prayer that includes the words, "we will have a Jewish home." And in some ways we will. But in others, my daughter Mollie was right on when she told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had made a choice to be part of an interfaith family.
And so it is written on the doorposts of our house and in the box under Dan's Christmas tree.