On Sunday I had the honor of giving a talk at The Museum of Jewish Heritage on the so-called December Dilemma. I’m posting an edited version of my speech here, along with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s brilliant “Can I Interest You In Chanukah?,” which, because I love it so much, I had to include in the speech:
I’m going to start today, as I started a column a few years ago, with the story of the Jewish boy who got Christmas presents from the family dog.
“Interviewed years later, as an adult, the boy — the product of an interfaith marriage — complained that when his family joined the Christian relatives on Dec. 25, “my cousins would all be getting toys from Santa, and I’d be getting gifts from the dog because my Mom felt bad. … because she [thought I shouldn’t] get gifts from Santa. Like that’s just outrageous."This quote appeared several years ago in a study about behavior of interfaith families — one arguing in part, that even those intermarried couples who say they are raising Jewish children give them a diluted Jewish identity by celebrating Christmas and, in some cases, Easter.
Which of course raises the question, can you be Jewish and still celebrate Christmas with your Christian friends, relatives — and, er, the dog?”
A lot of our ambivalence and confusion around Chanukah and Christmas has to do with the fact we all know that Christmas — thanks to its vital role in the consumer economy — has for as long as anyone can remember been a big deal in American culture. In response, many Jews have for decades made Not Celebrating Christmas a large part of what makes them Jewish, up there with Not Believing in Jesus.
For some Jews Not Celebrating Christmas is a point of countercultural, anti-consumerist pride; for others it’s a source of bitterness and resentment, with Chanukah doomed to never be as magical or dramatic or ubiquitous as a holiday that includes not just presents and lights and food, but trees, decorations, an enormous repertoire of songs and TV specials and even its own magical character. (By which I mean Santa, not the baby Jesus.) One of the things that makes the “Can I Interest You in Chanukah” video so funny is that Jon Stewart is so clearly unenthused about Chanukah, so understated, so clearly aware that Chanukah is nice enough, but really can’t compete with Christmas.
While NOT celebrating Christmas is a big part of being Jewish, for many Christians, even the most unreligious, celebrating Christmas is a huge nostalgia-laden deal, one that is often more about family and fun and childhood memories than the birth of Jesus.
So bring all of this together — the I’m Jewish Because I Don’t Celebrate Christmas and the I Love Xmas Even Though I’m Not a Big Jesus Person — profiles of the Jews and non-Jews statistically most likely to marry each other because 11 months of the year, their differences are not so pronounced, and Christmas is inevitably a tension trigger. (Which is not to say that religious Jews don’t marry religious Christians ever .)
Now, full disclosure here: Christmas is actually NOT a conflict and never really has been in my marriage, and I recognize this makes me atypical.
I actually grew up in a home that, because my stepfather wasn’t Jewish, celebrated Christmas each year with all the trimmings. My stepfather was an ardent atheist, but he loved Christmas (and kind of stage-managed it for the family), and my mother, a secular Jew who grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s with a severe case of WASP envy, was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to celebrate Christmas. I grew up feeling somewhat ambivalent about all this — in part because I felt very ambivalent about my stepfather and very insecure in my own Jewish identity. The older and more immersed in Judaism I got, the more my discomfort with the family Christmas celebration grew.
So when my husband Joe and I first got together (when my mother and stepfather were still married – they subsequently divorced), I was in some ways relieved that, because he was Catholic, I’d always have an excuse to go to HIS family’s Christmas celebration rather than my family’s.
The thing is, my husband, unlike most Christians I know, Doesn’t Actually Like Christmas. He hates exchanging gifts. He has no desire for a Christmas tree. And his childhood nostalgia runs more to watching 1970s TV shows like “All in the Family” and reading Carl Sagan books than to egg nog, carols and so on.
We’ve also been lucky in that not just Xmas, but religious decisions, have mostly gone fairly smoothly in our relationship: ie., we’ve mostly done what I want! Early on, we agreed that we would raise any children we had as Jews, and there would be no Christmas celebrations in our home — this was easy to decide since Joe didn’t care anyway, and at that point, Christmas always meant a trip to New Hampshire to visit his mother.
We did Christmas in New Hampshire each year, not so much because Joe liked the holiday, but because it was the one time his whole family got together in one place — so in addition to making his mother happy, it was one-stop shopping for seeing his siblings and their children. Most of his family members bent over backwards to accommodate us —– wrapping gifts in Chanukah paper, wishing us a happy (if mispronounced) Chanukah, asking if we’d heard the Adam Sandler “Chanukah Song.” His mom even gave us a menorah one year. A few inevitably forgot and gave our daughter Christmas ornaments and Christmas books, but we laughed it off.
As I’ve written in my column, celebrating Christmas in someone else’s house is a common compromise of sorts for families raising Jewish kids — a way to honor the tradition and holiday, but make it clear it is not your own. It’s also, I think, a good way to demystify the holiday — I think some Jewish families are so adamant about rejecting/avoiding all things Christmas for fear that a whiff of pine needles will be the gateway drug to abandoning Judaism, that it only makes their kids feel more curious, like they’re missing out on something mysterious and exciting.
For the past few years, since my mother-in-law died, my family hasn’t done anything for Christmas, except admire the decorations on the street and go to a pre-Christmas party our friends host. We’ve kind of gotten into the whole Jewish Christmas thing — Chinese food, movies. A few years ago we even went to a klezmer concert on the Lower East Side. Also, Joe — a teacher — is usually exhausted by the time Winter Vacation arrives and relieved not to have to shlep up to New Hampshire.
This is not to say that our way is the right way or that I judge interfaith families who make different decisions — even families that decide to celebrate Christmas right in their homes, along with Chanukah (and this year, they’re even on the same day!) Yes, Christmas trees can set off a visceral reaction from many Jews (including, I admit, myself). It’s easy to judge other Jews and make assumptions about them when we see the iconic evergreen in their house, and it’s not uncommon for Jews who’ve agreed to a tree, thinking it would be no big deal, to feel embarrassed and, er, needled, when it’s actually standing there in the living room.
That said, sometimes a Christmas tree is just a Christmas tree.
Last year I wrote in my blog, after we attended a friend’s Christmas party:
A few years ago, the sight of my offspring engaging in tree trimming might have made me squeamish, but this year, while we don’t (and won’t) have our own tree, I’m on a bit of a crusade, so to speak, against Christmasphobia. By which I mean the attitude many Jews (even some intermarried ones) have that Christmas and all its trappings must be avoided at all costs lest we assimilate into nothingness — and that we must be offended when clueless but well intentioned Christians wish us a merry Christmas or offer us gifts wrapped in red and green.
Like intermarriage itself, the presence or absence of a Christmas tree in one’s home is often used as a shorthand pulse check of Jewish identity — and both are rather flawed, simplistic measurement devices.
The fact is that many interfaith families, and in-married families with Christian relatives, do live full Jewish lives yet also partake in Christmas celebrations.
I especially liked a blog post last year by the “Velveteen Rabbi” (aka rabbinical student Rachel Barenblat)’ called “Forest Beyond the Trees”, in which she explores American Jews’ collective Christmas anxiety and points out that “Jewish identity shouldn’t be so fragile that a decorated evergreen can shake its foundations.”
The thing is, whatever you decide, it’s important to be sensitive and flexible and to recognize that there’s a lot of emotional baggage (and often resentments) that come to the surface this time of year that maybe are suppressed the rest of the year. And remember, it is impossible when you are intermarried to raise your children in a Judaism that is based solely on not celebrating Christmas and not being Christian — a Judaism based on negatives, rather than positives. But that is OK: because, ultimately, doing Jewish things (whether learning, celebrating/praying or engaging in social action) is more rewarding than simply not doing Christian things.
Stay tuned next week when I’ll be posting my selected bibliography of all things December Dilemma.