Last year, when contributing to a group blog for converts to Judaism, I had a brief exchange on the blog’s discussion forum with a reader about how an interfaith family (one Jewish spouse, one non-Jewish spouse) can negotiate the dicey waters of Christmastime. The reader described a scenario in which "one spouse wants a tree, stockings and to exchange gifts with relatives (the grandparents) on Christmas Day. Oh, and the family always serve a ham! The other spouse is Jewish and the couple has decided to raise the kids as Jews." He asked for suggestions for "creative solutions that preserve Jewish identity without sacrificing family unity."
Those who know me are aware that for me, Christmas observance is very much a thing of the past. While born and reared in an interfaith family myself, I don’t consider it an ideal—or even desirable—situation, and do not write this post to try to encourage Jews and non-Jews to marry one another and try to sort it all out afterward. For the record, I think the spiritual and religious health of a family is best nurtured by Jews marrying other Jews. (The rest can do as they see fit.)
Having gotten that out of the way, I still recognize that families do not always fall along such well-organized lines as "Jewish" and "non-Jewish." As I once wrote in a similar-themed post for that blog,
Given this, I know there are still couples and families that struggle with the Christmas question. The situation the reader described is a great challenge, and one which I suspect many intermarried Jews (and at least some Jews-by-choice) must face.
It’s not easy to be an interfaith family. But starting from the premise that both spouses are truly committed to raising the kids as Jews, certain modifications must be made at Christmastime. I can say from experience that it is very confusing to be told one is Jewish when there is a tree in the house every year (much as I loved it). Kids have a hard time coming away feeling they’re genuine Jews with Christmas things all over the house.
Here are the options as I see them:
1) Stick with an indecisive or mostly secular status quo and see what the kids decide to do later on. (This option only works if you have no expectations whatsoever about what the religious outcome will be.)
2) Give your kids a thorough education in both religions and let them choose for themselves. (Practically speaking, this rarely happens, and taking it as an option ignores the inevitable awkwardness the children feel having to choose one parent’s religion over the other’s.)
3) Decide to make some changes around the house at holiday time.
While the Jewish calendar does not have Christmas, it does have several holidays that incorporate elements essential to Christmas (except Jesus and mistletoe). I and other friends who are converts have found ways to use Jewish holidays as outlets for energies that used to go toward Christmas. Sukkot is a great time to decorate the sukkah (or the house, if the family cannot build a sukkah) with decorations representing the arba minim or Four Species, enjoy eating in the crisp/steamy (depending on where you live) fall air, and talk about the experience of living in a sukkah, both where the family lives and in the Holy Land. (A friend of mine once made and decorated a gingerbread sukkah, a clever alternative to a gingerbread house and a tasty dessert.) Pesach is a leisurely meal with lots of buildup, songs, shopping, decorating, and food. Since storytelling is central to this holiday, take advantage of the long meal to pass on Jewish stories from the haggadah and traditions, particularly about the Exodus from Egypt. (More resources for Pesach in another of my posts here.) Parents and children can talk at the Shavuot table about the commandments, what they mean, and how to observe them, and take the opportunity to study some Torah as a family. And of course, Chanukah can incorporate decorating, festive foods, and a nightly candle-lighting ritual, as well as satisfy the urge for wintertime gift-giving (but as the first Orthodox rabbi I ever met once said, "No Chaneke bushes!").
Adult education for both partners can be helpful to ensure that both parents are equipped to raise Jewish children. Jewish day and religious school without reinforcement at home crumbles. It is also important to make sure the children have Jewish friends by joining a temple and/or getting together with other families to celebrate Shabbat, Jewish holidays and life cycle events. This can also act as an educational and support system for the parents.
It is important that both partners be on the same page on these issues, and that both understand the importance of their roles and feel comfortable with them. A non-Jewish parent’s incompetence, confusion, or bitterness at being expected to pass on a religion he or she neither knows nor cares about is what gets passed on, not the Judaism. If both parents—but especially Mom—are not behind this program, it will fail.
And while it is not ideal, sometimes a visit to the grandparents during the winter holiday season is necessary to preserve shalom bayit (domestic tranquillity). (Kibbud av v’em, honoring one’s father and mother, is in the Top Ten, after all.) If this is the case, helping the children understand that what happens in the grandparents’ house reflects the grandparents’ religion (and not the Jewish family’s) may help to open their eyes without confusing them too much. As for the ham, perhaps a different main dish could be substituted—chicken? roast beef? vegetarian enchiladas?—and the ham shifted to an occasion on which the Jewish family could be absent.
It is not an easy situation, but if both spouses see themselves as being on the same team, then with love, patience, understanding, and some quality Jewish education, they should be able to build for themselves a bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael (a faithful Jewish home).