Five Reasons for Interfaith Empathy at Christmas
In my doctor’s office today I heard Christmas music–three full days before Thanksgiving. The ever-expanding Christmas season is upon us. Why do I call it the Christmas season, not the holiday season? I love Hanukkah, my kids love Hanukkah. But honestly, no one calls it the “Hanukkah season.” Hanukkah is just not that big a deal.
Christmas is a big deal. Every year, our interfaith families group discusses how to integrate two sets of “seasonal” expectations, and how to empathize with each other as we do this. The Jewish partners work on understanding which Christmas rituals feed the souls of their Christian partners. The Christian partners work on understanding the Jewish mix of underdog pride and alienation. Each interfaith couple must come up with their own balance of accommodations, but also, their own ways of pouring new life and creativity into old forms.
This year, I distilled the elements of this perennial interfaith Christmas discussion into five topics:
1. The Music. For many Christians, the music that permeates malls and airwaves starting this week provides essential nostalgia and anticipation. One woman raised Catholic spoke of tracking down the Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley holiday songs that her father brought home from Viet Nam on a reel-to-reel tape. What could be more heart-warming? But then, a man raised Jewish spoke up about experiencing his Jewish home as a refuge from the onslaught of “Christmas bling” and holiday music in malls, radio, school concerts. While some Jews enjoy the Christmas spirit, others hear carols and feel wistful and excluded.
So, some Jewish partners develop a taste for instrumental Christmas jazz but continue to reject the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Other interfaith families, despairing of lame traditional Hanukkah songs, are exploring the hipster Klezmer revival. Still other families negotiate a deal where traditional Christmas music is reserved for Christmas day.
2. The Lights. What could be bad about a “secular” display of sparkling cheer to dispel the darkest nights? But for many interfaith families, the line gets drawn here. My parents have been intermarried more than fifty years, and have a gargantuan tree and oyster stew and roast goose, but never lights outside. For some Jews, blinking lights signal “this house is Christian” to the neighbors. As one intermarried Jewish woman declared, “If we’re celebrating both, I’m okay with announcing that to the world with lights.”
3. The Creche. The nativity scene is, understandably, completely beyond the pale for interfaith families raising Jewish children. Some intermarried Jews never become terribly comfortable talking about Jesus, let alone seeing him in a Playmobil manger. Others see the celebration of the birth of an important Jew as less problematic than the celebration of his resurrection at Easter. For those raising children with both religions, a creche brings the actual story of the birth of Jesus into what could otherwise be a secular or only vaguely religious holiday.
4. The Tree. Much has been written about the tree. It’s Pagan, It’s an embarrassing reminder of assimilationist Hanukkah bushes. More than one interfaith couple tiptoes into the tradition with a tiny live rosemary tree in a pot from Whole Foods. Another Jewish spouse admits he’s been enjoying a Christmas tree for decades, but has never told his parents about it. Others manage to mix the Christian and Jewish in-laws together at tree-trimming parties.
5. The Food. Our rabbi calls Christmas “the most Jewish of the Christian holidays” because it centers on an elaborate home-cooked meal. For this reason, he compares Christmas not to Hanukkah, but to Passover. So eating and talking with the family, what’s not to like? But one Jewish partner bashfully admits, “Now that I’m in an interfaith family and we celebrate Christmas, I kind of miss the Jewish tradition of going to the movies and then going out for Chinese, bonding with other Jews doing that.” A Christian partner from another couple adapted this tradition to her own purposes: “I really wasn’t interested in spending all of Christmas day cooking, like my mother always did. So in our house, we open the stockings and presents, then go out for Chinese with all the Jewish families.” For this interfaith family, it’s the best of both worlds.