Chanukah, Christmas and the interfaith family: Tackling the “December dilemma.”

Every family has its own hallowed rituals and epic stories set to repeat so that children will know and remember and tell their own kids someday. My grandmother burnt the crescent rolls every Thanksgiving for 30 years. The first five times were by accident, and after that, I figure, she did it for the show…the way the whole family rushed around a too-small house hollering and opening windows and comforting the old lady who, truth be told, probably didn’t need comforting because she burnt those crescent rolls on purpose, in the name of Tradition. Now, as our house smells like the challah in the oven, I usher a familiar warning to anyone who’s still listening, “We need to keep an eye on things or else, just you wait, that bread’s going to look like Grammy’s crescent rolls!”

By virtue of secondhand experience and tender age, my daughter couldn’t possibly appreciate the importance of tending to the bread. She’s yet to reach the point of eye-rolling at my pre-Sabbath  foreboding. But I trust she’ll have her metaphorical “crescent rolls” – and the month of December might be one of them.

I’m a Jew-by-choice, married to a Jewish man, raising a Jewish daughter in an extended interfaith family that includes Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Episcopalians. And every year, at around the time that retail outlets start playing holiday (read: Christmas) music to the delight of shoppers (and maybe even me), my husband and I commence the annual conversation about how to best honor and enjoy our immediate family’s sacred traditions, to respect those of our neighbors – and our parents – and teach our daughter to do the same. Every year, at around that time, and even when Chanukah comes early, we navigate a sea of well-meaning but misinformed sentiment about the way we’re “missing out,” and every year we educate – quietly, gently, consistently – about how fortunate we are for the rich, wonderful array of holiday traditions we have. Every year, at least once, I remind myself, and now our daughter, that the person who sent us that awesome gift packaged in Christmas wrap knows we’re Jewish. (“They just love Christmas the way we love Chanukah and Passover and the Fourth of July! Now we know!”) Then I rewrap the present.

We interfaith families, diverse by our very nature, go about tackling the “December dilemma” in ways as very different as we. Probably, there’s no “right” way. Chanukah is a big deal in our house full of delicious food, festive Jewish music and Chanukah-themed children’s books. For us, for now, we’ve elected to bypass Christmas dinners, spending secular holidays with extended family and Jewish holidays at home. Christmas Eve is “Sushi Night,” the evening we get dressed up – think: Christmas-colored cocktail dresses, freshly-ironed shirts, ties! – to take our place at a window-seat in an empty Japanese restaurant across the street from a beautiful church. We watch the people coming and going from services, and we make plans for the next day. In the morning, we head downtown to ogle the window-display at Macy’s and the ice-skaters at the Frog  Pond. We volunteer. The homeless families who eat it, seem to enjoy the challah I took care not to burn.

“Look at that,” I say to anyone who’s still listening. “Now if we weren’t keeping an eye on it, that bread would have turned out just like Grammy’s crescent rolls and nobody would have enjoyed it.”

These things, I hope, are what my daughter remembers about December, about us, about her family.

Someday, if she asks what folks do on Christmas, we’ll explain as best we can. If she’s still curious, we’ll encourage her to call a grandparent or an aunt or uncle or cousin or friend to see for herself. Meanwhile, we’ll reinforce that, what for the way we go about our winter holidays differently, we love each other just the same.

Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters serves Jewish, non-Jewish and interfaith families. For information about, and resources for, interfaith families, visit InterfaithFamily.com!  

– Joni Kusminsky, J.D., Manager of Recruitment and Communications

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