In Defense of (Interfaith) Christmas

Growing up as an exotic half-Jew in a New England town right out of Currier and Ives, the very public celebration of Christmas made sense to me demographically, culturally, and somehow, esthetically . If you have a town hall from 1847 with a white steeple overlooking a perfect town green, it is hard to resist stringing lights on the tallest spruce. And if you have a colonial tavern on the other side of the green, it only makes sense to gather the townsfolk to sing carols with a brass band in front of the tavern on Christmas Eve. I bundled up and participated every year, but not without a certain amount of worry, introspection, and selective silence on red-flag lyrics.

As an adult in the diverse global village, I acknowledge that public Christmas displays can cause alienation, and raise all kinds of questions about who funds them, whether we should have community Hanukkah and Diwali and Eid celebrations, or whether the depths of winter would be better with no outdoor lights or indoor greenery. The American population is shifting, Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists now live in my New England hometown, and we have not yet fully grappled with these very real issues. On the other hand, many “100% Jewish” people, like my friend, blogger Susan Fishman Orlins, defend their right as Americans to indulge in secular Christmas rituals.

For my own children, we have chosen a pathway that minimizes the conflict over celebrating Christmas. The decision to raise them with both Judaism and Christianity means we can fully immerse ourselves in Christmas, without having to weigh and analyze each ritual and each ornament on the tree for hidden religious meaning. We don’t get hung up on whether the tree is a pagan symbol or refers somehow to the cross. We don’t get hung up on how angels figure in Jewish theology. We don’t get hung up on which carols feature Jesus, and which ones stick to sleighbells in the snow. As an interfaith child, and someone fascinated by the evolution of religious culture, I find all these questions interesting and worthy of mulling, preferably over a glass of mulled wine. But I do not have to work through them before tiptoeing into each holiday event with my husband and children. In educating our children about both religions, we have pledged to go as deep and wide into Christmas (and Hanukkah) as we can manage, con brio, stopping only just short of exhausting ourselves in the process.

Yesterday, my daughter went to the Best Buddies holiday party afterschool, and helped a girl with Down’s syndrome make a Christmas card, and reassured her when the Grinch yelled at his little dog Max. I am thankful that she did not have to feel conflicted about participating. And tonight, in our house, we will put on Nat King Cole and lift each ornament from its nest, and attempt to balance the white birds and tiny copper cookpots on each branch of the waiting tree. I am thankful that I do not have to feel conflicted about this annual moment of peace and joy. This Sunday, the last Sunday of Advent, all four members of our family will be part of the choir for the service of lessons and carols at our Interfaith Families Project. I am profoundly thankful that we do not have to feel conflicted about that. And on Christmas, we will share a roast beast with my pioneering interfaith parents, and all my siblings and their children: the Jewish grandchildren, the Catholic grandchildren, and the interfaith grandchildren. And we will know in the wisdom of our hearts, that deeper unity in which family transcends all boundaries.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

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12 Comments on “In Defense of (Interfaith) Christmas”

  1. Julia Jarvis Says:

    Love it. Feeling inspired and rested…ahhhhhhhh.
    It’s sort of like…all shall be well. all shall be well. all matter of things shall be well. Thank you SKM!


  2. Oh, the angst of Christmas. We never had a Christmas tree; it would have made me feel guilty and uncomfortable. We did hang stockings and have Santa and when the kids were grown and in college, we had Christmas dinner because that’s when they were home. Now we have Chanunkah dinner. My son, whose wife converted to Judaism, always has a tree. (My granddaughter remarked the other day that she loves the tree and thinks people who celebrate Christmas have more fun than “the Chanukah people.”) Obviously it’s the gifts and decorations she focuses on. I love to hear Christmas carols although I get sick of the same secular songs played over and over on the radio. Happy Holidays to you and your interfaith family.

  3. John Tariot Says:

    I love that you are able to share some of those Christmas memories from that snow-globe of our youth, Sue. And that you still share it with Paul and the kids. Brought me right back.

  4. Marci Says:

    Nicely said, Sue. As a Jewish child, I didn’t participate at all in Christmas.. didn’t sing the songs, didn’t go to friend’s houses to help decorate trees, and always had that anxious pang when someone wished me Merry Christmas and I had to explain that I didn’t celebrate it, and then get that “oh….” response. Being part of an interfaith family has taught me that I don’t need to feel guilty enjoying the secular part of Christmas, singing the songs (which are lovely!), decorating the tree and hanging lights. We discuss the story of Jesus’ birth and celebrate with friends and family, just as enthusiastically as we retell the Hanukkah story and eat latkes and dance the hora. It’s a month of guilt-free celebrations. We have Christian families over for Hanukkah, and are invited to Christmas parties. We are all entitled to believe and celebrate to the degree that is comfortable for each of us… and learn a little in the process. Happy Holidays!

  5. Rebecca Says:

    How did you get to the point of feeling unconflicted? I can’t believe it was simply because you decided to celebrate both holidays con brio. What were the early years like for you?


  6. Rebecca–

    You are right, it helps to be surrounded by a community of other interfaith families, where no one is judging our degree of Jewishness, or whether or not we have the right to identify as Jews. It helps to be able to discuss Jesus the Jew, and his role in the intertwined histories of Judaism and Christianity, in a spirited intellectual discussion with other intermarried adults and adult interfaith children, in a neutral setting.

    But also, because I was born into an interfaith family (though raised with a Jewish identity), it is easier for me to revel in my bothness. For an intermarried spouse, there are many moments of dissonance, and the journey takes time. But it can be done! Just ask my parents (80 and 86 years old now, still happily married).

    –Sue

  7. Judy BF Says:

    Christmas feels festive to me. How can it not? I went to Catholic high school. I was the only Jewish kid in my class and had the star role in the Senior Christmas Pageant–The Partridge. I even had my own Pear Tree–a girl who stood stock still throughout the whole fiasco! Happy Holidays! xo


  8. Thanks for your comment on my recent post, Susan, which led me here to your blog — I look forward to reading more from you over time.

    The path you’ve chosen isn’t necessarily the easy one, but I understand your desire to share both of your traditions with your kids. My husband’s parents are intermarried, and they chose to do something like what you’re describing, too.

    I think my husband’s favorite among the Jewish holidays to which I’ve introduced him (which weren’t a part of his upbringing) is probably Sukkot. He gets to build a little house; we decorate it; we have people over to sit inside and enjoy. :-)


  9. Rachel–
    Thrilled to have you stop by. Believe it or not, this path is actually easier for us, despite being provocative and controversial! The hardest part is explaining it to others, which is part of why I blog.

    A generation ago, I understand why my parents chose Judaism for their interfaith children (despite our patrilineality): trying to “do both” without the support of a community would have been difficult, and often did amount to doing very little.

    In contrast, with the support of a community (rabbi on staff, weekly meetings, full religious ed program with Hebrew starting in kindergarten), we try to go deep, including an enthusiastic Sukkot when we shake the lulav and etrog in the fields as we glean together for local food pantries.

    All, go read Rachel’s very thoughtful post on Christmas trees, and the lively discussion at her fabulous blog, The Velveteen Rabbi–http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2010/12/the-forest-beyond-the-trees.html

  10. bethany karn Says:

    in a week when Virginia atheists decided to put up mocking anti-religion banners next to Christmas mangers and Senator Jim DeMint decided to badger Congress with Christmas ultimatums, I was ever so glad to read this “we can all get along” essay. Sue Katz Miller, you have saved the holiday season. You go, girl!


  11. […] essentially disappears and December becomes primarily a delight. We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, with all of the trimmings, and seek to help our children to understand the religious meanings of […]

  12. Susan Orlins Says:

    Sue, great post and thanks for the shout out! Though I’m all Jewish, come December, I’m all about Interfaith.


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