My (non-Jewish) husband and I have been together for more than two decades, and every December the questions begin. Does Santa Claus come to our house? Do we put up a tree? Isn’t there supposed to be a December dilemma, a wave of confusion for our sons when they realize our winter holidays do not resemble the red-and-green images on television?
Maybe we are doing it wrong, because we don’t have a dilemma.
Of course, holidays were easier before we had children. We visited each other’s parents, learned each other’s traditions and exchanged gifts over champagne on New Year’s Eve. No Legos were involved in these transactions.
The conversation changed after our sons, now six and eight, were born. My husband and I are raising our boys as Jews but he was raised Christian and chose not to convert. We could not just say, “Our family doesn’t celebrate Christmas,” because half of our extended family is Christian.
My instinct was to shut everything Christmas out of our house. We are Jews. We cannot have holly and ivy and Advent calendars. Our boys would get a massive dose of Christmas every time they walked out the door between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. They didn’t need it in their own living room. My husband acquiesced but that still left a pile of questions regarding visits to his family. Was it kosher to hang a stocking at Grandma’s house? How do we avoid Santa without spoiling that tradition for their cousins? What about the fabulous candy-cane ice cream my husband remembers from his childhood?
At the same time, I didn’t want to make Hanukkah “big.” It’s not the Jewish Christmas. It’s not a major holiday. My memories are of quiet evenings at home with a lit menorah, chocolate coins and modest gifts, and I wanted the same for my children.
The number of negotiations felt endless. Did we really want our holidays to just be a list of compromises?
We took a step back and decided December should resemble the other eleven months of the year. Instead of saying “yes” to this and “no” to that, we needed a framework that would make our holidays an illustration of our family and its values. What did we want our children to absorb from our holiday celebrations?
And then, it got much easier. We wanted to emphasize family relationships, Jewish identity and respect for all traditions. We also love treats.
I filled a box with Hanukkah books, recipes and a music CD, and shipped it to my sister-in-law, who responded in kind. Listening to “Jingle Bells” and the Nativity story didn’t make us less Jewish; it established a connection to our cousins, who live 1,400 miles away. Meanwhile, our Rhode Island clan learned how to light a menorah and how to invent goofy verses to “I Have a Little Dreidel.”
Our own celebration is low-key and features homemade sufganiyot, because again with the sweets and I hate frying latkes. We set aside one night of Hanukkah for tzedakah, and another night to exchange books. Legos always make an appearance.
We save the Christmas tree and stockings for visits to my in-laws, but when we are home on Christmas, we smash candy canes on the porch and make the peppermint ice cream of my husband’s memories.
If we are visiting our Christian family at Christmastime, we attend church with them. Our children are surrounded by commercial holiday imagery throughout December, but they see little of the religious story. As a person of faith, I am more comfortable with my sons learning how other people worship than I am with the seasonal explosion of gifts and glitter. A candlelight service opens a discussion of the meaning of Christmas beyond the advertisements and it places the holiday in the context of religious identity.
For us, the season is not about assimilation vs. feeling left out. It is not a dilemma. It is an opportunity to help our sons understand who they are as Jews and as members of a large, loving, multifaith family, dished up with a side of jelly doughnuts and pink ice cream.
Jessica Griffith is writer and child-wrangler in St. Paul, MN, and a member of Mount Zion Temple.