December Dilemma (Oy! It's Christmas Time Again!)

Shel Israel’s essay, A Jew’s View of Christmas, has cause me to reflect on my own journey as a Jew who happened to marry a non-Jew and now celebrates Christmas. Well, let me rephrase that. We don’t exactly celebrate Christmas in the religious sense. We get a Christmas tree. But, I can assure you, that is more than I ever thought I’d ever do. Before I continue, however, I’d like to share my one piece of advice to any Jew who is contemplating marrying outside of the religion: Marry an agnostic. It will make your life much easier. Believe me. The less the “other” God is involved the better. Also, when you have children, get this book: Light the Lights!: A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas by Margaret Moorman.

A little background: I was brought up in a secular household on Long Island with a strong Jewish identity but no formal training. My brother, nine years older,  was Bar Mitzvahed and my sister, six years older, was a Hebrew School dropout. By the time I came along,  my parents had long given up their Temple membership.  However, we did celebrate the High Holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), Passover and, of course, Hanukkah. I even got to stay home from school on the High Holidays as long as I went to services. My parents didn’t go,  I went with friends and spent most of the time in the lobby. (Services were much more boring back then.)

I have lovely memories of Hanukkah. My mother, like most Jewish parents in America, played it up as best she could despite the fact that, honestly, you just cannot compete with Christmas. But it was our special holiday and, hey, it was an eight-day holiday at that! That meant eight presents! (Of course, compared to all the gifts under any given Christmas tree, that’s not that much. But what did I know?)  My mother would lay seven of our Hanukkah presents out on the dining room floor underneath the window where our Menorah was displayed and we got to choose one gift to open each night. On the eighth night we were presented with the big (read: most expensive) gift. Sometimes, it would be hidden and we’d have to find it. The last one I remember finding was a gold bangle bracelet in the linen closet. (Unfortunately, it was too small and I don’t think I ever did get a replacement.)

I don’t recall having too much Christmas envy as a child. Despite the overabundance of Christmas music, decorations and other public displays of the holiday, I never felt slighted because it wasn’t my holiday. I still don’t, however I do admit to a little smugness when it comes to really over-the-top and tacky decorations. I also really dislike the color combination of red and green. Who thought of that anyway?

Ok, I did go through one envious period – when I became best friends with Amy in junior high school. Although Amy was Jewish, when her mom married a Christian they began to celebrate Christmas – in a big way. They always had a big, beautiful tree in their big, beautiful house and a really fun tree-trimming party every year. Amy’s mom embraced the holiday with abandon and, for the first time, I had major Christmas envy. (Perhaps I can blame Amy’s mom for my rebellious tendency to date non-Jews in the years that followed. But that’s an analysis for another time and place.)

Fast forward 13 years and, although head over heels in love, I’m breaking up with Don, my Christian boyfriend, because he tells me he isn’t sure if he can raise his children Jewish. That was my tipping point. I could marry outside of the religion but I was damn sure not going to raise my kids anything but Jewish.  I couldn’t, in my heart, do that.  Then, after some contemplation,  Don concluded that I meant more to him than any convictions he may have had about religion. In fact, he came to the realization that he didn’t actually have any religious convictions at all.

So, with that little issue all tidied up, Don and I moved in together. And then December came along and it was time to get a Christmas Tree. What? Um, I’ve never had a Christmas Tree…it’s so…RELIGIOUS…it’s pagan…it’s an homage to Jesus Christ, for God’s sake…and, hello?…I’m Jewish! How can I have a Christmas Tree in my home? Do you even KNOW what it’s like to be Jewish, what with all we’ve been through for the last thousands of years? And did you NOT tell me you were agnostic?But, he reassured me, it wasn’t for any religious reasons that  he wanted the tree. It was because of the special feeling it gave him at this time of year. It had nothing to do with Jesus Christ or Christianity or anything like that – he just purely loved the sight, the smell, the feeling and beauty of it. So, I gave in and we bought a tree. It was a tiny little tree that sat, barely adorned, by the fireplace. OK. I can do this.

The next year, we were living in a slightly larger place and got a slightly larger tree. I even bought some ornaments. I was catching on. And so, with each year, the tree got a little bigger and bigger. And with each year, I embraced the holiday a little more. I bought more ornaments, I decorated the tree, I enjoyed the music, especially Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas CD. Most of all, I enjoyed how happy it made Don feel.

Don and I eventually married. (Jewish wedding, fyi.) Then came the children. I hadn’t really prepared myself for how I was going to deal with the Christmas Tree issue once I had kids. Actually, I secretly hoped that somehow we would just sort of stop getting a tree once we had them. I was wrong. In fact, when you’re married to a non-Jew, you can’t really avoid Christmas if the rest of his or her family happens to celebrate it. So, our children ended up celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah. However, they are most definitely Jewish. They are not “half Jewish, half Christian” or anything like that. They are as clear as they can be in the understanding that they are Jews whose father happens not to be.  Over the years, I’ve toned down the Hanukkah gifts and stopped trying to prove to my kids that Hanukah is any better than Christmas. I’ve come to realize it’s not a competition. In fact, Hanukkah is really a minor Jewish holiday. It’s just become more like Christmas in America because it happens to occur around the same time.

I have to give a lot of credit to my husband. For 363  days of the year we have a 100% Jewish household. We don’t celebrate Easter or any other Christian holiday. We belong to a Reform temple and my son is studying to be a Bar Mitzvah. But for one night and one day, we have a Christmas Tree. For the last few years, we’ve even gone out as a family to cut down our own tree. It’s fun, we go to the country and get a little exercise.  The pickings are a little slim since we go the day before Christmas, but the prices sure can’t be beat.

Although I’ve come a long way, I still approach the holidays with trepidation and hope that I’m not going to live to regret the decision to celebrate both. Although my children, now 10 and 15 years old, celebrate Christmas because of and for their father, I do hope – albeit selfishly –  that they will both end up marrying Jews and, therefore, will discontinue the tradition. But I know the odds might be against that hope. And I will have to accept whatever it is they choose to do. Just as I  learned to accept that first tiny Christmas Tree 19 years ago. This journey of mine has been an evolving one. And, with each year, I have become a little more comfortable with it. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely comfortable with it, but I’m getting there.

For more information about the “December Dilemma” and raising children in an interfaith family:

http://www.interfaithfamily.com/holidays/hanukkah_and_christmas.shtml

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