By: Rabbi Debbie Reichmann and Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block
It’s that time of the year again when interfaith families try to balance their celebrations of Christmas and Chanukah. It’s viewed as a season of negotiations and compromises (Can we have a Christmas tree…how about a Chanukah bush? How many presents should we give the kids…eight…ten…none? Whose in-laws are coming for the holidays? What house of worship can we attend as a family? Is there such a thing as kosher Christmas ham?) So common is this phenomenon, many have come to call this time the “December Dilemma.”
As co-clergy of the Interfaith Families Project, a hybrid community of nearly one hundred predominantly Jewish-Christian families, we have seen firsthand the challenges – and the great many more joys – this season can bring. In fact, our community has moved away from the term “December Dilemma” and instead prefers calling this time “December Delights.”
In our experience, often the ‘dilemmas’ interfaith families face, can also be viewed as or evolve into ‘delights.’ Indeed, in many ways every family is an interfaith family, as each person brings their own connections to and interpretations of their tradition(s). Therefore, all families face dilemmas and delights this time of year.
In this holiday season of sharing, we hope that you find opportunities to articulate some of your own December dilemma/delight stories; and if you need some inspiration, here are two of ours:
“Ho Ho…Oy Vey” by Rabbi Debbie
It was a cold and gloomy Sunday in December 2013. My family (extended) and I had decided to go out for lunch at our favorite restaurant, a cozy and friendly place that we frequented often. Upon entering, the greeter exclaimed, “You’re just in time! We’re about to close the visits.” We wondered what she meant by that, as the dining room was as busy as ever. Before we could ask, a young woman dressed as an elf showed up and started ushering the children (ages 6-10, all said and told) down the stairs. I volunteered to go with them, making a quick gesture to my husband, my brother, and our parents, who stayed behind to get a table. I trailed behind the kids as they ran down the stairs, curious to see what was going on.
Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, I caught the coattails of one of the kids heading into one of the private party rooms of the restaurant. Hustling to catch up, I barged into the room and stopped short. There, in front of a fireplace, sat Santa Claus himself, surrounded by huge boxes wrapped as presents. He looked up and smiled, his eyes twinkling. “Ho ho ho! Welcome, welcome, my little friends!” he boomed.
The kids had been ushered in for the last visit of the morning with Santa.
For a second I was frozen. My kids and my brother’s kids were Jewish. They didn’t celebrate Christmas. They didn’t believe in Santa. How did this happen? How did we end up in this situation? What if the kids said something that would offend Santa or the elf? What if they started crying or screaming? What if we caused a scene?
The kids looked at each other, then at me, and then at Santa. They seemed to sense that this was a special and unexpected opportunity. They shrugged and smiled, and posed for a picture. They thanked him and his elf, and took a candy cane from a basket. They were polite, respectful, and happy.
We left Santa and went back upstairs. The kids were bubbling with excitement and talked all over one another trying to be the first to tell the rest of the family that they had visited with Santa! The whole family smiled and laughed and enjoyed the lunch and the holiday cheer.
A December Dilemma? I guess. I could have been affronted by the assumption of the staff that all kids brought to the restaurant that day were there to visit with Santa. I could have been appalled that they were exposed to such a blatant display of Christian culture.
I wasn’t though. I was delighted by the smiles on their faces. I was delighted to be a part of this joyful experience. I was delighted that the kids had experienced a classic holiday tradition (even if it wasn’t “our” tradition). I was delighted to have a spot of joy (and hilarity) to brighten the dreary December day. No, this wasn’t a December Dilemma, in my book it was a December Delight.
“Oy Christmas Tree” by Rev. Sam
As a child growing up in an interfaith household, where we practiced both Judaism and Christianity, the December holiday season was a time for decorations galore: menorahs and mistletoe, dreidels and stockings, even a Dean Martin figurine that sang out “Let it Snow.” An eight foot-ish high Christmas tree was always featured prominently by our window, sporting ornaments – each with its own unique story and sentiment.
It was important to my Christian mother that we have a real tree; and when we would shop for it as a family, she had an eye for picking out the perfect one (fat, healthy, sturdy branches). My Jewish father, on the other hand, tended to be less selective at checkout time. Not only this, when we would decorate the tree at home, he stayed a marked distance away – instead focusing on managing the holiday playlist.
It wasn’t until I was well into elementary school that I began to realize that although Dad enjoyed watching us get excited about the Christmas tree, he never touched it. Yes, he would chauffeur us to and from tree shopping. Yes, he would take pictures of us and our interfaith neighborhood friends, as we put the lights and ornaments on. Yes, he would sing along to his favorite holiday songs. But he would never lay his hand on the tree.
Perhaps it was because he never had a tree in his home growing up (although I’m told that my Jewish grandmother had one as a child). Perhaps it was because he was uncomfortable getting close to a symbol so linked to a Christian holiday. Perhaps he was afraid that by taking delight in the tree, he would somehow be “less Jewish.” Whatever the reason, we all knew the tree was Mom’s domain and the menorah was for Dad.
When I was eleven years old, my father and I were home alone, when we heard a big crash. We came into the living room to find our Christmas tree on the ground, surrounded by countless broken ornaments. There were angels missing wings and snowmen without heads, a crushed shimmery ornament from a favorite trip we had taken, and two-thirds of an antique star designed to sit atop the tree. It was a ghastly scene. I remember my eyes welling up in tears. All of these treasures and memories…all of this hard work and beauty…gone. I looked at my dad and he looked at me. There was no way I could pick up the tree on my own, and there was no telling when my mom and siblings would return home.
“Come on,” Dad said, leading the way. His arm reached down to pick up the fallen tree, like a wounded friend in battle. I put my hand close to his and together we brought the tree back up to standing position. He held it high as I secured the bottom. And then, he did something remarkable. He began quietly picking up each broken ornament and somehow finding a way to put each gently back on the tree. Wingless angels. Headless snowmen. Not a single one was left behind.
The next sound we heard was Mom opening the door. She gasped, but not because of the tree. Her surprise was seeing my dad doing something that he had never done before. And I understood why. It was not because Dad loved Christmas trees; it was because he loved his family.
It was that unexpected ‘touch’ that year that opened another door. Dad’s Christmas tree ‘dilemma’ became a tree ‘delight.’ From then on, with no impact on his Jewish identity, he became a more involved participant in this family tree buying and decorating tradition.
These days, my empty-nest parents still pick out a tree each year. Of course they love decorating it with their three kids and five grandchildren, but when we are far away, they enjoy doing this together. What’s more, Dad still makes one great holiday playlist.