I am a Jew who happens to have a Christian mother, a Christian husband, and a Christmas tree. There are lots of ways to rationalize the tree, if you want to avoid confronting the meaning of Christmas. An evergreen has nothing to do with Jesus and is a druid or pagan pre-Christian symbol. Many secularized Jewish families had trees when I was growing up in the 60s, though some called them Hanukkah bushes.
But a creche? Not so much.
Every December in our adult discussion group at the Interfaith Families Project, facilitator Ian Spatz asks how many interfaith couples have a Christmas tree. Most raise their hands. Then he asks how many have lights strung outside their homes. Not as many hands go up, but some. Then he asks about the creche. One or two lonely hands go up, and inevitably, some Jewish guy asks, “What’s a creche?” According to some surveys by a Jewish organization (not a terribly objective source), about half of all interfaith families have Christmas trees, but only four percent tell their children the Christmas story.
Christmas trees are ubiquitous this time of year, and for better or worse, they can pass as “holiday” decorations divorced from the original Christmas narrative. But a creche (French for a nativity scene) is unambiguously religious. The baby Jesus himself lies in the manger, surrounded by all the characters in the story: Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the wise men. The creche puts the Christ in Christmas decorations.
This week, Garrison Keillor lost many of his loyal fans when he made rather bizarre and snarky comments about Unitarians, and about Jews who wrote popular Christmas songs. He seemed greatly offended that these songs have nothing to do with the religious meaning of Christmas. Keillor sounded annoyed with the fact that the season, the lights in the darkness, the cocoa and family togetherness and midnight sledding, can have spiritual meaning for everyone, at least all of us living in northern climes, regardless of religion. Leaving Jesus out of a song does not by definition force one into a life of superficiality and commercialism.
I don’t know why Keillor is being so stingy with Christmas. I’m glad for the way great Jewish composers have contributed their songs to the season. But when we decided to raise our children with full knowledge of both religions, we agreed to reach deep into the religious meaning of Christmas, rather than skimming along the sparkly, sugar-frosted surface. And that meant teaching our children that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus.
We were living in Brazil when our children were babies, and I fell in love there with a quirky creche made up of little clay figures from the famed folkloric art center of Caruaru (in the photo above). For a while, we also arranged a cheesy, plastic Playmobil creche on a low table so that the kids could play with the figurines and work out the nativity story.
Our children have heard many versions of the Jesus story: Jesus the political rebel, Jesus the revolutionary rabbi, Jesus the ascetic mystic, Jesus the great Muslim prophet, Jesus the son of God. As a Jew, I have no problem with most of these versions. And I have no problem with exposing my children to a Christmas that transparently celebrates the birth of an extraordinary figure, whoever he was.
Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.