A lot of people I know have to embark on a finely choreographed dance at this time of year – it is a dance that can go as smoothly and in-tune as a Viennese Waltz, or it could end up in a aggressive, adrenaline-filled Krump. It is a dance that could make or break good feelings, good cheer and often, the holidays altogether. The dance is called, Whose Family Are We Spending Christmas With This Year?
And I am so happy I have never had to learn it.
You see, come December, there is no discussion to be had – we celebrate Christmas with my husband’s family. While so many of my friends and in-laws are gingerly stepping onto that particular dance floor with their partner, I am at home, lighting the candles on our menorah. We are an interfaith family, and we can at least count Christmas Day negotiations as one issue we don’t have to face. But there are plenty of others to take its place.
While accurate statistics on interfaith marriage are hard to come by (especially Canadian statistics), a 2008 survey states that up to 37% of married Americans has a spouse of a different faith. As a couple, my husband and I (I am Jewish, my husband, though atheist, is from a Protestant family) have always been on the same page regarding our difference in backgrounds – it really doesn’t matter. Remaining understanding of (our family’s) customs and traditions has always been the key to inter-faith harmony for us, culminating in a wedding ceremony that included a chuppah, unity candles, the breaking of the glass and a Judge to officiate.
Handling the holidays was always a similar pursuit of accommodation: we lit the menorah and ate latkes at my mother’s house; trimmed the Christmas tree and ate turkey at his mother’s house. Then we had kids.
Compartmentalizing the holidays – Jewish with my family, Christian with his, is easy to do as adults because we can understand, intellectualize and rationalize our decisions. Children have a bit of a harder time doing those things. So do grandparents, for that matter. But my husband and I found purchase in these negotiations as well – their Jewish ‘education’ is up to me, and any part of my husband’s religious or spiritual identity that wishes to impart on our children is up to him.
The good news is, our children obviously accept their lives as normal. But they have questioned not only a) why we celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah when most of their friends only get one or the other and b) what the significance of each holiday is. I have a much easier time explaining the former. For one thing, children are completely open-minded. That Mummy is Jewish and Daddy is not doesn’t phase them in the slightest.
As for the latter, I struggle. That Hanukkah is a celebration commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem following a great miracle, I am comfortable in explaining to my children. I have passed to them the traditions of eating chocolate gelt and spinning dreidles and singing Hanukkah songs.
But if I am to tell the absolute truth, I am still not entirely comfortable with the symbolic, religious meaning of Christmas – at least, not comfortable with explaining it to my children. And my husband doesn’t seem to care to do it, so for my children, Christmas is a time of wonderful fun (and gifts!) and family (and gifts!) and specials and music and Santa (and gifts!), but they have no clue what Christmas is.
For now, we focus on the things that I have always felt were of the most cultural and personal value anyway – the traditions. On December 20, we will light the first candle on the menorah, and we will eat latkes and sing songs as loud as we can and open a small gift with my family. And then, on December 24, we will go to my in-laws for our Christmas Eve sleepover, and we will wake up together and enjoy an entire day of aunts, cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents and a ton of food. Oh, and did I mention gifts?
And then, on December 26, my husband and I will begin what we hope will become a new tradition, inviting friends and family to join us at our house for an afternoon of as much merry as we can squeeze out of people.
Although in the future, my children will most certainly require more explanation, more dialogue and more answers about why our family does things the way we do, for now we feel that what we are providing for them is more than enough – the best of both worlds, two traditions, two families that love them fiercely and two parents completely dedicated to providing a tolerant, loving and understanding atmosphere so that their future remains as open as their present. It will undoubtedly take deliberate parenting as well as flexibility and perhaps even some philosophical enlightenment on our part, but that – that is a dance we are both more than willing to do.