The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: email@example.com
I’m Afraid He’s Going to Fall for Christmas
I’m a Jewish man married to a Jew-ish woman, who grew up celebrating Christmas with her non-Jewish mom. We decided that our children — we have one 3-year-old boy and plan on more — will celebrate the holiday exclusively at my in-laws 100% Jesus-free house, and never in our Jewish home.
Now that my son is getting older, I am struggling with this more than I anticipated. Whenever we pass by Christmas decorations or Santa he gets so excited, and I feel as though it is my responsibility to suppress this excitement and remind him we are Jewish. The funny thing is, I grew up getting excited about Christmas, but it was okay because we didn’t actually celebrate it. Seesaw, is it time to let go and make peace with the fact that Christmas is something my son celebrates? Or can I find a way to make it clear that it is something his grandparents do that we join them for, but it isn’t really our thing?—Scrooged?
Let It Go, Let It Go, Let It Go*
SUSAN KATZ MILLER: You can decide to have a Jewish home, and give him a Jewish education, but you need to make peace with the fact that your son is part of an extended interfaith family. You did not grow up celebrating Christmas, so it isn’t really your thing, but it is your son’s. You agreed to a secular Christmas, which seems like a reasonable concession given that your son is being raised Jewish. You can reassure yourself that it is the secular Christmas (Santa, not Jesus) that excites your son. But you must also accept that although your son is being raised Jewish, he knows he has a mother who grew up celebrating the holiday, and grandparents who still do so. And ultimately, your son will make his own decisions about religious identity and practice, as all children do in adulthood.
I grew up in your son’s shoes, in a Jewish home, celebrating Christmas at the house of my Christian grandparents. And if it’s any comfort, I grew up to consider myself Jewish, belong to a synagogue, celebrate Jewish holidays, and write for Jewish publications. I don’t think it would have made any sense to me if my Jewish father had told me that Christmas wasn’t our thing. I knew I came from an interfaith family, I loved my grandparents, and I loved celebrating the secular aspects of Christmas with them, and with my cousins.
What you can do, as he grows older, is explain the difference between the secular celebration in your family, and the religious celebration of Christmas as the birth of Jesus. You might be interested in my essay, “Why Interfaith Kids Love Hanukkah (Even if They Get Christmas Too).” What you cannot do is banish all hints of Christianity from his experience as part of an extended interfaith family. He is an interfaith child, and on some level, he already knows that. You job as a parent is to help him to feel good about who he is.
*To the tune of “Let It Snow” or “Let It Go,” singers choice.
Susan Katz Miller is both an adult interfaith child, and an interfaith parent. She is a former Newsweek reporter, and the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family” (Beacon Press).
Make Judaism So Rich That There Is No Void to Fill
HAROLD BERMAN: My first year in Israel, when December 25 rolled around, it didn’t dawn on me until 5 p.m. that it was Christmas. That’s natural in a country where Christmas is barely visible, but Jewish holidays are everywhere.
Growing up in America, your son will experience the opposite. An American Hanukkah cannot compete with Christmas lights that become ubiquitous before Halloween. If you want your son to develop an unambiguous Jewish identity, then share joyous Jewish experiences with him year-round — dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah, build a sukkah and dwell in it together, dress up on Purim, have a truly fun, interactive Seder — just to mention a few possibilities.
Then, there won’t be any void for Christmas to fill. But absent a joyous, substantive Judaism, there is no reason why Christmas — “Jesus-free” or otherwise — wouldn’t be the highlight of his year. (Incidentally, most Jews would be unhappy if non-Jews appropriated and reinterpreted Jewish holidays. If a Christian opts for a “Jesus-free” Christmas, that is their prerogative. But a Jew should think seriously before re-interpreting an essential Christian holiday.)
You and your wife (you haven’t mentioned her perspective) need to decide together which Jewish values you wish to impart and what messages you wish to send. And you need to approach that conversation as honestly as possible. Children hear the hidden messages even as adults are rationalizing that they are conveying the opposite. Within that context, you can then clarify your purpose in visiting your in-laws on December 25, and what messages your visit will impart. (I have specifically not mentioned matrilineal descent issues, as it is beyond the scope of your question. But it is important to research and discuss.)
Harold Berman is a veteran Jewish communal professional, and the Director of J-Journey.org, which provides mentoring and support for intermarried families exploring the possibilities of observant Jewish life. Harold is also, with his wife Gayle, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” about their “intermarriage gone Jewish.”
Make it Grandma’s Holiday That He Helps Her Celebrate
JIM KEEN: Let’s face it, Christmas is all around us, whether we celebrate it or not. It’s hard for a kid not to get excited about the mystery of Santa and all of the bright, twinkling lights. Fortunately, you do have control over the message that you communicate to your son.
The fact that your mother-in-law is Christian doesn’t mean you have to keep her traditions from your children or give up and celebrate both sets of holidays. Instead, tell your son that you and he are Jewish and are only helping grandma celebrate her holiday. It’s a lot like helping a friend celebrate her birthday.
It’s not your birthday, but it’s okay to help her enjoy hers. You can sing happy birthday, play games, share in the cake, and even take home a goodie bag from the party. Likewise, you can help grandma decorate her tree. It’s not your tree, because you are Jewish, but it’s perfectly fine to help someone who is Christian enjoy her special day.
As long as you and your wife keep your message consistent, your son shouldn’t feel conflicted about his identity. Also, when Hanukkah and Shabbat come around, grandma can come help him celebrate his holidays.
Jim Keen is the author of “Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family.” He has been in an interfaith relationship for 28 years, and has been an active participant with his wife in raising their two Jewish daughters. They live in Ann Arbor, Michigan where Jim teaches in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.