Some Jews Love a Christmas Tree. But a Creche? Oy!

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.

Thoughts On This, the Last Night of Hanukkah

Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah, and my obsessive side is very satisfied to discover that I have exactly the right number of leftover candles accumulated over the past several years to fill our Hanukkah menorah. Each package of Hanukkah candles comes with exactly the right number to get you through the holiday. But in practice, at our house, each year we celebrate one or two nights at the homes of other families, and don’t light our own, so the extra candles roll around in my tea cupboard. This year, in deference to the economy and the state of the planet, we used the assorted candles left behind from past years. The mismatched theme seemed to fit our family:  jazzy and colorful, if a little untidy.

Hanukkah was appropriately low-key this year. We gave our teenagers glow-in-the-dark Silly Putty one night, and fuzzy pyjama pants another night. My husband contributed some cool light-up “party rats” that you clip on the end of each finger “for night blogging.” I’ll have to borrow those.

On one night, instead of giving the kids gifts, we made a donation to our friends who run FairVote, a group trying to upgrade American democracy by getting rid of the electoral college. This is a political cause my teens understand and support. Another night, we gave our Hanukkah donation to the winter Special Olympics, the charity designated by my son’s ski club this season.

Perhaps because this is my first Hanukkah in the blogosphere, I have been reading a lot (some of it disturbing, wise, funny) about the multiple meanings of Hanukkah. I realize that by emphasizing the “light in darkness” theme, I risk being accused of watering down or avoiding the historical and political origins of the holiday because I’m a half-educated half-Jew. Or worse, I could be accused of “settling for” the theme Hanukkah shares with Christmas and the solstice as part of a least-common-denominator homogenization, rather than wrestling with the distinctive and sometimes difficult meanings that are unique to Hanukkah.

I am wrestling though. For instance, we have guests coming to celebrate with us tonight, so I printed out copies of the three English verses of Ma’oz Tzur as written out in gorgeous script years ago by my Episcopalian mother. (Note:  rather sad that children cannot read cursive any more). This hymn has its origins in the 13th century, and it appeals to me because it seems to fulfill a requirement for ritual storytelling, and it emphasizes the theme of religious freedom, which appeals to me as a religious renegade.

My family sings all three verses, because that’s the way we’ve done it for generations, and because it is somehow pleasurable to rub up against the difficulties of the text, like worrying a loose tooth with your tongue.  We sing “and thy word broke their sword,” even though none of us believe that the almighty, if he/she exists, takes sides in (dubious) military battles. We sing “priests approved in suffering” even though it triggers uncomfortable associations with the victim mentality. And we even sing “children of the martyr race” in the final verse, even though it conjures up the deeply problematic “chosen people” issues, and the martyr complex, and the persistently pernicious idea that Judaism is a race (or even ethnicity).

Someone has written a new, more politically-correct lyric to replace that last one..subbing in “children of the wanderers.” One year, I gently suggested this change, but my father, never a big change advocate, was staunchly opposed. So I have retreated to singing, and wrestling with, the old lyric. For one more night. And then it’s on to wrestling with Christmas.

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.

Hanukkah Chronicles: Midweek Interfaith Glitch

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.