No Christmas Confusion for Jewish Interfaith Families

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For interfaith families who have chosen a Jewish path, participating in Christmas celebrations does not influence their religious identity, the Jewish half of an interfaith couple argues.

With the holiday season in full swing, many interfaith families have been celebrating and preparing for two family celebrations — Christmas and Chanukah. This makes the Jewish community nervous.
 
Communal leaders and family members worry that celebrating Christmas will confuse children who are otherwise being raised Jewish or diminish their Jewish identity. They believe that participation in Christmas is religious syncretism and makes it less likely that Judaism will pass on to future generations. They say that to be Jewish, a home must not include any other religious observances because they create ambiguity.  
 
Jewishly engaged intermarrieds like me agree that a home should have one religious identity. That is why we have chosen a singularly Jewish path. But identifying Jewishly doesn’t mean that we ban Christmas or participation in the holiday activities of our non-Jewish families. 
 
What many within the Jewish community fail to understand is that, for a large number of interfaith families, including mine, Christmas is not religious. Yes, Christmas is a religious holiday, although the Church doesn’t consider it the most important. It is simply the most popular culturally and socially, and that is how many Jewish interfaith families honor it.
 
According to InterfaithFamily’s 2013 holiday survey, 88 percent of intermarrieds celebrate a secular Christmas that lacks religious content. We give gifts, we enjoy a holiday meal and festive foods, we spend time with relatives. We celebrate Christmas in the same way as I did as a Jewish child from an inmarried home. 
 
My childhood Christmas included a tree in my house, dinner and gifts on Christmas Eve with my father’s Jewish family, and a similar celebration on Christmas Day with my mother’s Jewish family. We reconnected with out-of-town relatives and bonded in ways that were far more memorable than going to the movies and eating Chinese food. 
 
I thought that our celebration was entirely secular because we were Jewish, and it wasn’t “our” holiday. I assumed when I met my non-Jewish husband that I would experience a more religious observance because faith was important to his parents. 
 
My father-in-law is a theology school graduate and layman in the Episcopal Church. My mother-in-law sits on the vestry. They attend services most Sundays. But not on Christmas; too many “C&Es” — people who only attend church on Christmas and Easter.
 
What I learned since joining the Larkins is that there is secularism in Christianity, too — it’s what the Jesus-is-the-reason-for-the-season-folks scream about.
 
The Larkin family Christmas has no religious component: no church services or prayers, no reading of scripture or discussion of the nativity story. It is, with the exception of stockings and more decorations, the same as my childhood Christmas. 
 
Christmas Eve is a buffet dinner and a grab bag with my father-in-law’s extended family, and Christmas is a lazy, relaxing day filled with food and gift giving. Like my Jewish family’s Christmas, the Larkins’ Christian Christmas is about enjoying time with family.
 
As I’ve listened to and read the hullabaloo in the Jewish media about interfaith families and Christmas, I’ve thought about my most religious Christmas moment. I realized that the most religious thing that I’ve ever done on Christmas was light Chanukah candles. 
 
When Chanukah falls on Christmas, we religiously observe the holiday after our secular Christmas. We kindle the menorah with my in-laws, sister-in-law and nephew. We say the prayers in Hebrew and our non-Jewish family read them in English. In these moments, there is more religion, spirituality and talk of God than there is in any other part of our Christmas celebration.
 
For interfaith families like mine — families who have chosen Judaism, and who nurture Jewish identity year-round through Shabbat and holiday observance, Jewish education and community engagement — what happens on one day in December has little, if any, impact on our embrace of and commitment to Jewish life.
 
Similarly, the lighting of a menorah with Jewish relatives by an interfaith family that has chosen Christianity doesn’t call into question the family’s Christian identity.
 
For dual-faith or no-faith families, observing Christmas may well create ambiguity and confusion. I don’t know; that’s not the path my family has taken.
 
What I do know is that our Christmas celebration has no power to shape the identity of my Jewish interfaith household, just as it had no power to influence my childhood connection to Judaism. What happens in December, stays in December. 
 
Jane Larkin is the author of From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity. She writes for InterfaithFamily.com and contributes to The Seesaw in The Jewish Daily Forward. Follow her on Twitter @JaneLarkin6. 

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