The December Dilemma is a reality that many interfaith families live out each holiday season. The big question is how to balance Christmas and Chanukah in a family with a parent of each faith.
While families try to keep the meaning of Chanukah at the forefront of their celebrations, it can be difficult living in a country that overwhelmingly celebrates Christmas.
Some experts argue that the overlap between these two holidays is a good thing, however. It provides the ideal opportunity for open dialogue between faiths, setting the grounds for each to share important traditions and practice.
“It is important to try to recast what has sometimes been referred to as ‘December Dilemma’ to ‘December Delights,’” said Dr. Keren McGinity, director of Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement at Hebrew College’s Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education. “Give interfaith families the support they need to honor all of their family members as well as engage Jewishly. There is no one correct way. What is better for one family is not necessarily the solution for another.”
For interfaith families that are raising their children Jewish, the problem boils down to how to celebrate and properly respect the traditions of each faith without confusing the Jewish identity of their children.
“I encourage families to celebrate with distinction,” McGinity said. “By that, I mean to acknowledge both the sanctity of the Christmas holiday and the historical reality and meaning of Chanukah. Not to blend the two, but rather to celebrate each on its own merit and in ways that are meaningful to all parties.”
Erica Hamilton is Jewish, but she and her kids celebrate Christmas with her husband’s family. To accommodate observance of both holidays, the family simply plans parties on different dates to give room for proper celebrations.
“It took some extra planning,” Hamilton said, “but it is very important to me that for our children, Chanukah is seen as this great celebration just as much as Christmas, rather than one over the other. We give them both their due.”
Mandee Heinl is raising a Jewish family with her Catholic husband, Steve. Although their kids are still young, Heinl said they understand the Chanukah traditions, and she plans to teach them more of the story as they get older. The Heinl children also experience Christmas at their grandparents’ house, where the family has a tree and gives presents.
“I know some families do presents for Chanukah, but we have never done that. We try to stick to traditions such as jelly doughnuts and latkes, lighting the menorah, gelt and dreidels,” she said. “Santa does not come to our home. I think it would be confusing to have more than one religion in our home, but that could change, and they will have more questions as they get older. Right now, we stick to Chanukah to keep it clear for them.”
Celebrating non-Jewish holidays with friends and family should not be considered detrimental to a child’s Jewish identity, some rabbis say.
“I tell families with Christian relatives that they should make sure they are celebrating whatever holiday with that side of the family. It’s an often-used analogy, ‘They’re going to someone else’s party,’” said Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. “The core issue is if your goal is to raise Jewish children, the majority of your own celebration should focus on emphasizing the Jewish holiday.”
Heinl thinks this cross-pollination can be a learning experience.
“We have Jewish children, but they don’t miss any Catholic traditions that my husband wants in their lives,” Heinl said. “He takes my lead in Judaism, and I take his in how he wants to integrate his religion into it. “I’m not intimidated by another faith, I have a strong Jewish identity and I hope my kids will too, but I think being around other religions is a win,” she added. They learn about people and cultures that believe differently than they do. I still want to instill a strong Jewish identity in them, but I don’t think teaching them to be wary of a different faith is a good way to do that.”
The Hamiltons and the Heinls are far from the only families navigating a two-tradition holiday season.
There are many families in the nation navigating interfaith marriages. A 2013 Pew Research Center study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” found that 42 of non-Orthodox Jews ages 18 to 34 were intermarried. Thirty-six percent of practicing Jews were intermarried, compared with 79 percent among secular Jews. According to the study, 35 percent of Jews intermarried in the years 1970 to 1974. Between 2005 and 2013, 58 percent of married Jews had non-Jewish spouses, a 23 percent increase.
Commercialization and the holidays
While Chanukah is of less religious significance to Jews than Christmas is to Christians, some feel Chanukah has become commercialized like Christmas due to the coinciding timing of the holidays.
“I think a lot of Christians would say Christmas is out of control in its commercialism,” said Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation in Baltimore. “I have for a long time advocated bringing Chanukah back to its humble origins, I don’t think it is helpful to the celebration of Chanukah to try and make it into Christmas. We should celebrate it for what it is, but I don’t think there is a need to make a huge to-do about it.”
For Jews from other countries, celebrating Chanukah in America might come with a bit of culture shock.
“It has become clearer to me as a South African Jew that there is a different way to celebrate Chanukah,” said Lara Nicolson, director of Shalom Baltimore and interfaith engagement at the JCC of Greater Baltimore. “When I moved here 12 years ago, I realized American Jewish culture is very different. We have fallen into buying eight gifts and decorating our home for Chanukah. We have lights, and [our home] looks festive like many of the non-Jewish homes in the neighborhood.”
Having been raised in a country where Chanukah was more about family being together, lighting and displaying the menorah and making the traditional food, Nicolson was surprised by the complexity of the American holiday season.
“Christmas is a major holiday for Christians, and it has become a very big American civil holiday,” she said. “But the gifts and the trees, they are American traditions.”
While some feel the commercialization of Chanukah can be detrimental to its traditions, it can be a valuable opportunity to educate non- Jews about the holiday — many are unaware of its minor religious significance relative to other holidays.
“The Chanukah that we talk about as competitive of Christmas is the American cultural observance, not the religious observance,” said Rabbi Jessy Gross, senior director of Jewish Learning at the JCC of Greater Baltimore. “Setting up a dichotomy between the holidays is something interfaith families have to deal with, but ultimately as a rabbi, I want people to feel connected to Jewish values and ideologies. What I care about is that people know the story of why we celebrate Chanukah in the first place.”
So how does one emphasize Chanukah to children in a way that empowers their Jewish identity?
Tradition is a big part of Chanukah, but simply lighting the candles and giving gifts is not necessarily provoking the questions that an interfaith family may need to ask.
“It’s a holiday about rededicating [the Second Temple], so every year, we need to rededicate ourselves to retelling the story of Chanukah and doing so with historical accuracy,” McGinity said.
Reinforcing Jewish identity
“I always have been of the belief that these issues are more complicated for adults than for children,” Schwartz said. “A child is told, ‘Oh, you’re Jewish or Christian or whatever,’ and the child says, ‘OK, that’s me.’ A kid can go to a grandparents’ Christmas celebration and know, ‘I’m a Jew, but my grandparent isn’t.’ It isn’t going to impact the child’s Jewish identity, and I remind families of that. “It’s also important to make sure to respect the other faith’s traditions, to understand what they are and what their origin is. [A Christmas celebration as a Jew] doesn’t have to be threatening.”
Busch echoed Schwartz’s sentiment.
“It will be simpler for both the children and the family if they have only one religion in their household, but I know families very successfully raising Jewish children who take a more complicated approach,” Busch said. “If the goal of the parents is to raise Jewish children, the Jewish holiday experience should be the bigger thing in their lives than celebrating anything else. I believe kids can go to other people’s celebrations and understand one family member is not Jewish but the family as a whole is. It is a complicated message, but kids can understand.”
Nicolson understands that for some interfaith families, celebrating Christmas will be more significant than to others.
“Chanukah is not one of our major holidays, and we have eight days,” she said, “so if a family is feeling challenged, you can accept that for some families, [Christmas] will be their major holiday and you should not compete.
“For those that are struggling with how to steer their traditions in an interfaith family, the first point is that the couple really needs to discuss it with each other first to figure out how to blend their family and faiths.”
For example, Gail Willoughby raised her family Jewish, and although her two children are now grown and identify as Jewish, their entire family attends a Christmas Eve candlelit service out of respect for Gail’s husband and his traditions.
“We support him during his holidays as he supports us,” explained Willoughby. “He is a Christian, but he is at [synagogue] a lot for services and not just during the high holidays. “It’s interesting because when we go to church, the people are always very curious about our holidays and will come greet me and say happy Chanukah and ask about our traditions. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me, and the conversations that we have are very positive.” JN
This article was originally published in the Baltimore Jewish Times, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.