In Waco, TX, my husband’s Reform Jewish family was proud to observe Hanukkah with latkes and dreidels, eschewing Christmas trappings of any kind. In northwest Iowa, my own Methodist family’s Christmas observance carried deep spiritual and emotional weight, filled with the scent of pine trees, cookies, and Advent candles, and the music of Handel and caroling.
During the past 30 years of marriage, with love and support from our extended families, we have found a path through the holidays together, and learned to advocate for each others’ perspectives and rights with schools, in-laws, and places of worship. In case it helps any young interfaith families create their own traditions, I offer a few of the choices we made:
- The tree: Silly as that seems, this was my only non-negotiable item for our engagement. The kids have been raised as active, bar-mitzvahed Jews, but they also love to decorate our fresh fir tree with lights and the little ceramic stars of David that my mother-in-law sent us. My husband, after selling trees in the YMCA lot to raise money for Indian Guides, is now an expert in tree selection.
- The music: Everyone in my family knows the words to many carols and can improvise lyrics to “I Have a Little Dreidel.” We attend no more than one holiday music concert together (the limit of my husband’s tolerance), but I sometimes slip out on my own to wallow in the season. We found children’s Jewish music tapes to play (over and over) while driving to the Jewish grandparents’ for holidays. Discreet, proactive inquiries about holiday concert repertoire to schools and the community youth chorus have ensured that if there is a Christmas song, the Jews are also given recognition with a song.
- The wrapping paper: At one time, I amassed such a diverse collection of wrapping paper that when I went into the kids’ first-grade classrooms to talk about Hanukkah, I created a game in which I asked the students to identify which holiday went with which pretty paper. (They enjoyed the chocolate gelt I brought much more!)
- Christmas Eve services: When we were able to spend December 24th with my parents, they wanted to share the beauty of the candlelight service with our kids by bringing them along to church. After much discussion, we decided that my parents would be so happy to share what they treasured (and to show off the grandkids to their friends), and that no harm would be done as long as my husband and I came, too, and first talked it through with the children. It turned out that after a year or two, the kids had no interest in getting dressed up and going out in the cold, and neither did their church-going cousins, and soon no one went to the services. Instead, we stayed home and sang carols and Hanukkah songs, with my sister and I mangling the piano accompaniment together to much laughter. After a year or two, my folks stayed home, too, so as not to miss the fun.
- The presents: My husband was adamant that Hanukkah gifts would be substantial enough to favorably compete with Christmas gifts from my family. We developed a plan for one special night of Hanukkah with a big gift; that night, te kids also chose a charity to receive a check in their name. The remaining nights were celebrated with latkes, games, small gifts, and chocolate. We usually went to Texas for Thanksgiving and celebrated Hanukkah early with my husband’s family, with an exchange of gifts. On Christmas Day, the kids opened gifts from my family, and maybe another small item from us, and something in the stockings from Santa.
- Santa: This plan didn’t work so well! Every other year, we shared the holiday with my sister and her kids, who were about the same ages as ours. Santa brought the cousins lots of wonderful stuff on Christmas morning, but our kids had trouble remembering the very nice Hanukkah gifts they had already received weeks ago! Thus, for the years when belief in Santa prevailed and they stayed up listening for reindeer on the roof – a period that seemed to last much longer than it should have – our kids double-dipped . Not saying I’m proud of that, but I couldn’t convince my sister to lighten up the Christmas morning scene on our behalf.
How did it all turn out? Now, our kids are college-age, and when we get together with the cousins for the holidays, we play a Jeopardy family facts game where correct answers win holiday cash (without the fun wrapping paper). My nephews are southeast Kansas dreidel champions, sing a little Hebrew, and have been to three b’nai mitzvah. My kids are comfortable in churches but much prefer their temple, and on their own, they now donate to the charities they selected when they were young. And we all love the all the scents of the holidays: latkes, candles, and fresh-cut fir.
Ann Courter lives with her husband in Oak Park, IL, and is happily anticipating the arrival of the kids back home from college and law school for winter break. She is an advocate for children's issues and serves on the Chicago Sinai Congregation social action committee.