Friday, December 11, 2009

December Dilemma

Tonight marks the first night of Hanukkah.  This fact would have meant nothing to me as a child.  Now it means a lot.

Growing up, I was a good Catholic girl who went to a Catholic school in a largely Catholic town.  I went to church every Sunday and every holy day of obligation.  Among those holy days of obligation, Christmas was by far my favorite.

Like many little kids, I loved Christmas for the presents and the reindeer and the jolly old man dressed in red.  But I also loved the mystery of the nativity story, the nobility of the poor mother seeking out shelter to give birth to her child, the wise men traveling to welcome this child with gifts.  I loved looking at the life-sized creche on the altar at church.  I loved laying under the Christmas tree in our living room, gazing up at the constellation of lights and tinsel and glittering ornaments.  The rituals of Christmas were tied up for me with everything good about childhood - innocence, wonder, security, home.

Now there is no tree in my house, no carols, no Gospel of Luke or Matthew.  We don't celebrate Christmas.  I do, but we don't.  

You see, Husband is Jewish.  And this fact - coupled with my own faith tradition - seemed for a while like it might derail us.  When we were dating - years before the idea of marriage ever surfaced - we thought long about the choice to be with someone of a different religion.  We read books; we took online quizzes; we sought advice.  We worried about it incessantly.  We wondered how we would pull off a wedding.  We wondered how our children would answer the question, "What are you?"

But then we found that we really loved each other.  We couldn't imagine not being together, not having these hypothetical children - different faiths and all.  And we found a way to have a wedding.  And we found a way to bring two little boys into this world.  And we simply don't think about it so much anymore.

People in the interfaith community use the term "December Dilemma" to connote the difficulty couples face in choosing a religious path for their mixed families.  And indeed I feel a dilemma at this time of the year, but it's not the one that I imagined.

Our ad hoc solution to what to do about the winter holidays has been to celebrate each holiday with our respective families.  So our boys enjoy Hanukkah, latkes, and candle lighting with Oma, and Christmas, the manger, and stockings with Grandpa and Grandma.  And that is nice.  In fact, it is lovely.

But I worry about the future - about sending the message that holidays happen elsewhere, outside of our home.  That Christmas and Hanukkah are essentially about material acquisition.  That the stories behind them are easily glossed over in packing suitcases full of gifts and rushing out of town.

Now I celebrate Christmas.  I sort of celebrate Hanukkah, too.  And that is fine, for now.  But, whether or not Husband and I decide to have a tree, a menorah, both, or neither, I want to find a way to allow my kids to feel the innocence, wonder, security, and sense of home I always felt - and really still feel, with that soaring organ music and the choir singing "O Holy Night" at midnight mass - at this time of year.

I'm not worried about what we call it or how we define it; I just don't want our sons' childhoods to pass without creating in our own home a space for them to feel the magic I once did, to share with them an excuse to infuse the everyday with the transcendent.

How do you celebrate the holidays?  Has your own observance changed as you've aged?


  1. These questions really speak to me. I don't struggle with an interfaith dilemma, but I do struggle with how I am going to celebrate "the most wonderful time of the year."

    Here is my problem. The real reason of Christmas-Christ's birth-is magnificent. However, the rest of Christmas-the presents and Santa-I struggle with. I used to love it as a child. I would stay up late, wake up early, excited to find out what was under the Christmas tree. I soon found disappointment. My family was poor. I am one of 10 children and my father struggled with finding a job that supported all of us. Christmas became a dreaded time of year. I didn't want to look under the Christmas tree because I knew I would feel frustration. I knew I would envy my siblings' presents.

    This selfishness possessed me. Until I went away to college. Then, I realized I did not want any presents. I did not want to celebrate that aspect of Christmas. I wanted to avoid harmful feelings and enjoy the real reason behind the holiday: the birth of our Savior.

    Now, with my own family, my husband and I have decided to ignore the gift giving part. We are giving service instead. We are traveling to visit family. We are seeking Christ.

    In the midst of this holiday season, I am also beginning to resent the greedy companies who profit off of Christmas. To them, Christmas = money. Lots of money. The commercials, the songs, each help their cause. At the same time, those who do not celebrate Christmas are left in a quandary. I think Becca over at Drama for Mama expressed this well. Their children question why they don't have a Christmas tree...or expect Santa to come...or other various "Christmasy" things.

    Maybe we should return to celebrating the holidays as a family, without commercials intruding upon that personal space.

    Now I am rambling. As you can see, I am puzzled over this holiday question. Excuse the length of this post.

  2. You know I posted on this recently. I don't envy your situation. I have a hard enough time figuring out how to instill meaning into Chanukah while having my kids feel special and not different for not celebrating Christmas. I do think eventually you will have to decide what traditions you want to start in your home during the holiday season. They don't have to be religious traditions but something that will make this time of year really special for your kids while their friends are celebrating in their own ways. Maybe it's Fondu (vegetarian of course!) night on Christmas eve. Maybe it's playing board games on the first night of Chanukah. Maybe they look forward to virgin Pina Coladas every year on Christmas Day. I just think that with the commercialization of these holidays, kids need to feel a "part" of something and that something can be whatever you choose. I wouldn't take away that special time they have with their grandparents (those memories certainly will last a lifetime!) but I think you may start feeling sad that the memories aren't including you as well.

  3. I think for your family it's a great month - you get to celebrate all month long! Sure it can be overwhelming - so pick and choose the traditions and celebrations that mean the most to you. But I think it's fantastic that your children get to experience two ways of celebrating this time of year.

  4. The December dilemma. Like most dilemmas, this must be tough. But I think that you are evidencing your thoughtfulness right here. In asking these questions, in pondering these hard questions, I have no doubt you will figure out what is best for you and your family now and going forward.

    We celebrate the holidays in very traditional ways. Church. Trees. Presents. It is interesting because I am in the opposite situation - Husband and I happen to come from very similar religious backgrounds, our family traditions overlap quite a bit. And this is wonderful in many ways. It is. But this similarity, this rooted tradition, does not make us ask or consider some very important questions.

  5. Oh my.... I do seem to have my calenders in a shambles. I can only blame MOMALOMS!!! Thank you for this lovely post.

  6. I wish I had something wonderful to add here, Kristen. Although I was intermarried in my 20s, my 2nd marriage (the one with the kids) is not, which leaves me free to be a big Jewish fanatic. I believe the most successful intermarriages focus on what they have in common, not what they don't. There are a lot of resources for intermarried couples on the Internet (and there are a lot of intermarried couples who came before you who have written about it, so have no fear), including Beliefnet. Here's a link to a good interfaith and holidays article:

  7. I think back to the "magic" that was created in my home growing up and I too want that for my family but I think it will just sort of happen and hopefully our kids will look back on the memories that mean the most to them one day. My hubby is Hindu and so we have had our fair share of differences starting with our wedding. I chose "the more the merrier" philosophy. We had two weddings and celebrate all of our holidays both Hindu and Christian. I feel doubly blessed, although at times I wish my-laws were closer so they could help pass on things I cannot or do not understand and my hubby has forgotten.

  8. I think it's great that you're thinking about this now.

    My brush with an inter-faith relationship was with my first really real boyfriend at age 18. He brought me my first roses, took me on my first real date (real like you see in the movies; he was so romantic) and I admit it, I imagined little dark-haired babies lighting a menorra and then going to Christmas mass. I figured, we'd just do everything.

    I wonder what happened to him.

  9. That has to be such a difficult situation. We have a hard enough time focusing on our one faith and figuring out how we want to celebrate it, let alone another! :)
    I will say, though, that as you know we're trying to focus less on the gift giving and more on the actual holiday - which seems like one of the many dilemmas you're coming across. It's tough, and we're coming under resistance from those around us, but it's important to us. You'll figure out, it just takes time and a lot of anguish... like most things when it comes to religion :) (I kid...)

  10. Kristen,
    What a challenge indeed. Even with the different religions, from reading your blog I get the sense that your boys are not in danger of missing the magic. Just the fact that you are aware of what you had as a child and that you want to create a home where those feelings and memories are possible for your children means it will happen, in some form.

    At the same time, you never know what will stay with a child when he is grown anyway, right? Sometimes the memories parents try to orchestrate are not the ones that stick in the mind.

    I respect that you have kept your Christian faith and your husband has kept his Jewish faith. At your boys' ages, having parents who believe in and honor God is enough, don't you think? I know there are a lot of things to deal with when the questions roll in but you've got time to figure it out. Keep wondering though.

    BTW- I cannot listen to O Holy Night without getting chills and wet eyes. Gets me every time, especially the "fall on your knees" part.

  11. My husband and I are theological twins, somehow. We were raised loosely Christian, and have grown up to believe that good hymns are central to all faith. Not very impressive, huh? Despite our shared beliefs or un-beliefs, we STILL can't decide what our children's religious upbringing will be. Our indecision has lead to a mostly commercial Christmas tradition. We better step it up so that our children can grow up to become more than just good shoppers.

  12. Greta - Thanks for joining the conversation. It's always comforting to know that Husband and I are not alone in bumbling toward shaping an experience of the holidays for our kids. And I love how you put it: "We better step it up so that our children can grow up to become more than just good shoppers." Amen to that!


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