At this time of year, a blizzard of articles about the so-called December Dilemma swirls up like snowflakes rising from the floor of a snowglobe. Every year, I take calls from journalists looking to, perhaps, shake things up: to dramatize what they are sure must be a conflict between Christmas and Hanukkah, and between interfaith parents. And yet, having chosen to fully educate our children about both family religions, the dilemma essentially disappears and December becomes primarily a delight. We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, with all of the trimmings, and seek to help our children to understand the religious meanings of both holidays.
Our pathway is controversial: not every interfaith couple can or should choose both religions for their children. For many families, choosing one religion makes sense, and there is a vast literature out there to help these families negotiate the holiday season. But in our local community of more than 100 interfaith families, we believe that both Christian and Jewish stories and rituals can be inspirational, are essential to literacy in Western culture, and are part of the heritage of our children.
So as Hanukkah and Christmas approach once again, here are eight reasons (some weighty and some as light as tinsel) why my interfaith family celebrates both holidays:
1. To get right to the main point, I see no theological conflict between Judaism and acknowledging the birth of a Jewish spiritual seeker who stood up for the poor and oppressed and changed the course of history (that would be Jesus). If you want to argue that Judaism and Christianity are incompatible, Easter presents more of a dilemma.
2. Generations of Jews in America grew up celebrating what they considered to be a secular Christmas. Some of these same people now turn around and tell interfaith families they shouldn't exchange Christmas presents or carve a roast beast. For my perspective, this is ironic.
3. My family believes our interfaith children should be allowed to experience the major holidays represented by both sides of our family. You could even argue that forbidding the Christmas tree only makes it more desirable.
4. Christmas trees, Yule logs, holly and mistletoe are apparently pagan pre-Christian European traditions anyway, absorbed into the modern celebration of Christmas. I want my children to acknowledge the origins of these ancient customs, not simply write them off as "secular."
5. On Hanukkah and Christmas, the shared theme of the miracle of light (whether from a guiding star or oil that burned for eight nights) is probably not a coincidence. Both traditions function to ward off the dark of the winter solstice. This synchronicity, and the evidence that religions co-evolve, influence each other, and respond to the same human needs, provides a key moment of identity integration for interfaith children.
6. If Christmas was good enough for Irving Berlin, Mel Torme, Jule Styne, Johnny Marks, Jerry Herman (all Jewish composers of Christmas songs in the American songbook), it's good enough for me.
7. The Christian partner in an interfaith marriage may experience holiday blues if prohibited from experiencing beloved family traditions such as singing carols and baking gingerbread. Children do not benefit from having depressed parents.
8. Children thrive on ritual, and on a feeling that their parents are equal partners in the family culture. My children love the ritual of lighting Hanukkah candles, and they love the ritual of tree-trimming. We do not mix these rituals together. We do not hang dreidels on our tree or stuff gelt in our stockings. We are not creating a new religion. We are simply sharing with our children each of the separate traditions into which they were born.