With interfaith families more prevalent than ever, so comes the holiday-season quandary over dual celebration. Are we giving kids the best of both worlds—or causing confusion of biblical proportions?
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Last night was the first night of Hanukkah. My friend Ann put up a new picture on her Facebook page: her two little girls lighting the Menorah while wearing matching sweaters bearing the smiling face of … Santa Claus. “The tops are from their Nana,” Ann explains, her non-Jewish mother-in-law.
Ann’s family celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah each winter; they are hardly alone. According to a huge 2013 Pew research survey about “The State of Jewish America” (part of its fascinating Religion & Public Life Project), 58 percent of Jews who have married since 2005 wed non-Jewish spouses. While some convert, most do not. For those raising children in interfaith households, the question of how to raise them as Jewish—or how Jewish to raise them—can loom large.
In a recent blog post, Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, writes of the two paths—“choose one” or “choose both”—and concludes that “there is no way to exclusively raise a child with one religion in an extended interfaith family.”
Ann’s family chooses both, raising interfaith children with exposure to both religions’ major holidays. She has been happy with the results.
“It works pretty well for us,” says Ann, who lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two kids. “Growing up, Hanukkah wasn’t a big-deal holiday as it really isn’t an important Jewish holiday. We lit candles and got small gifts. Rosh Hashanah and Passover are much bigger events.”
Her husband, raised Christian, takes the lead on the Christmas part. “He does most of it because he has very strong and positive memories of his childhood Christmas that he wants to recreate. For example, we must cut down the tree ourselves.” But she doesn’t stay home. “I happily go along. I do like it. He happily cooperates with me doing a big Seder and a huge Rosh Hashanah event.”
And as for the non-Jewish in-laws, interfaith marriage has provided an unexpected bonus: “Once my in-laws realized that my parents have no interest in seeing us at Christmas they were thrilled.”
“The kids love having both,” says Ann, “and feel sad for their friends who don’t celebrate both kinds of holidays.”
“We do it all,” says Claudia, an Atlanta-based mother of two, “and I have no guilt, which is a miracle in and of itself in a Jewish-Catholic marriage.” Her older daughter goes to Hebrew school and identifies as Jewish, but Claudia says, the holiday observances in her house are mostly “secular and more about family traditions.”
April, raising two kids in California, is another mom doing both. “As the Christian-based parent, I’ve always felt bad about Christmas getting more attention so we do presents all eight nights of Hanukkah,” she says. “This is ridiculous, but I can’t quite sort out how to rein it in without making ‘my’ holiday more important. We don’t do big gifts every night … but still. That’s a lot of presents.”
Celebrating both December holidays—leaving aside the very real religious and cultural objections that some raise—can result in overstimulation. And it’s not just gifts. “I’ve already eaten latkes three times and it’s only the first day of Hanukkah,” says April. “Something’s gotta give and clearly, we need some holiday therapy.”
“At the same time, we have a great holiday season and everyone is basically excited and celebratory non-stop from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. So I’m thinking that’s a win. A huge, gluttonous win.” (April talks about the topic in more detail on her podcast.)
My friend Laurel, another Atlanta mom, grew up in an interfaith household. Now she’s raising two sons with her non-Jewish husband. “Generally, the solution is that we go to the Christian grandparents for Christmas, and celebrate Hanukkah at home. Like, Christmas isn’t bad. It’s just not ‘ours’ so we go to help the grandparents celebrate.” This year they aren’t going to visit the Christian grandparents in Iowa. At home, they don’t do stockings or Santa. “But we do open the gifts the grandparents sent, and feel grateful that they thought of us at their holiday season. And then go out for Chinese food.”
What bugs Laurel is when people—out of good intentions—try to combine Christmas and Hanukkah into one big mega holiday, or refer to the entire month as “the holiday season.”
She knows they mean well, but points out: “My holidays aren’t in December. They happen in fall and spring. Basically, what matters to me is keeping things distinct. Letting Hanukkah be Hanukkah, and Christmas be Christmas.”
I think that’s the key: boundaries, clarity, and a sense of respect for where these holidays come from. As Ann and Laurel point out, Hanukkah isn’t the biggie on the Jewish calendar of holidays the way Christmas is for Christians. Some Jewish parents feel they struggle to keep Hanukkah the right size, to avoid the temptation to elevate the holiday to match the over-the-topness of Christmas (good luck with that, I say).
At the same time, there is a bit of mutual fascination many of us who grew up with one or the other feel toward the other holiday. Christian kids envy the idea of Hanukkah’s eight nights of gifts, while Jewish kids are often drawn to the tree and inescapable soundtrack of Christmas (a recent series of Buzzfeed videos illustrates this sweet blend of affection and ignorance).
Sometimes interfaith marriage produces a strange kind of serendipity. “One year, when Hanukkah and Christmas overlapped,” says Dame’s executive editor Kera, “my in-laws wanted to surprise me by making latkes. They put a dollop of applesauce and sour cream on the plate. But they felt that the plate of latkes still looked so naked. What to do?, they thought. So they added bacon (which was good, because we were all hungover from drinking Manhattans the night before. Nothing cures a hangover quite like a plate of grease).”
For my friend Elisa, who is Chinese-American, marrying a Jewish man completed a circle. When her daughter recently demanded that the family begin celebrating Hanukkah (they haven’t in the past), Elisa says, “I grew up wanting to be (and thinking that I was) Jewish. When I was little, maybe 3 or 4, my parents sent me to the closest pre-school, which happened to be Jewish, and every Friday, I would happily bring home some lumpy challah that I had helped make and that the rabbi had blessed. We even had a royal-blue glazed clay Star of David that I made, which got pride of place at the top of our Christmas tree each year.”
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