In the darkened dining room, our family of four gathers around the Hanukkah candles, gazing into the flickering flames and pondering our favorite, inspiring final phrase from “Rock of Ages“: the part about “tyrants disappearing.” We have hit a groove on night four, with everyone remembering all three verses, and my husband’s gorgeous harmonies giving our a capella rendition real depth.
Then I stride into the living room and face the empty evergreen branches. “Okay, now we have to switch from the Jewish channel to the Christian channel and trim this tree.”
My fifteen-year-old daughter looks up in dismay. “Mom, too abrupt! I hate when that happens.”
Epic fail, as the kids would say.
I am trying to provide an unvarnished depiction of the benefits and drawbacks of choosing to raise children with two religions. Clearly, this was a moment when the drawbacks came into clear focus. As an interfaith child, I have been celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah all my life. I’m supposed to be the expert on this. How did I find myself at this awkward moment? I was trying to do too much, failing to provide enough space for the two holidays without creating a distressing mash-up.
So here’s the good news. We have managed to say a blessing over the candles and sing each night of Hanukkah, and there have been joyous and tender moments. On the first night, my parents, alone in Boston, got on the speaker phone so that we could sing all three verses of “Rock of Ages” in English together, my family’s tradition. In a year when the holiday does not fall during a school vacation, we appreciate the technological assist in connecting my children to their only Jewish grandparent at Hanukkah.
On another night, we celebrated, as we do each year, at the home of some of our closest friends, a rare Jewish/Jewish family in our town. They spoiled us with both white potato and sweet potato latkes (not the kind from a box that I make). And we joined in the hilarious and frenetic Hanukkah klezmer dancing traditional in their family.
The bad news is that it is even harder in an interfaith family to meet the challenge of making time, with school events and lessons and meetings and homework, to fit in a meaningful Hanukkah moment. And that’s where I screwed up. I saw a window in the calendar, a night when we did not have particular plans beyond lighting the candles, when I thought we could get the tree trimmed. The tree had already been waiting on the porch for several days, and was now sitting patiently inside on its stand in the corner. The nakedness of the tree had started to feel like a silent rebuke. Was I giving space to my husband, to my children, to anticipate Christmas?
In other ways, I had already minimized some of the Christmas anticipation to make more room for Hanukkah and simplify the season. I decided years ago that we would not light Advent candles, or open a daily Advent calendar, even though these are lovely traditions, precisely because I wanted to clear space for Hanukkah.And the truth is that I felt the candle-lighting Advent tradition, in particular, felt too close to Hanukkah in its form.
So on night four of Hanukkah, I moved a little too quickly into Christmas mode, and everyone felt it, including me. The fact that we all noticed, that it felt like a rough transition, does, ironically, reassure me that the overall plan is working. These are substantive holidays, with deeper meaning, for me, for my children. If they were superficial celebrations, the transition would not have mattered so much.
After a few awkward moments, we got into the festive trimming mode. Nat King Cole helped, as did the memories unwrapped with each ornament. Our cat hid inside an empty box and played with the crumpled newspapers. Our dog, who has perpetually worried eyebrows, paced about and looked vaguely concerned by all the unfamiliar objects. My son’s analysis: “Kitty is Christian, and the dog is Jewish.” We strive for balance, even in our pets.
Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.