My husband and I have been thinking a lot about Christmas and Hanukkah this year and would like your opinion on the best way to deal with Christmas as a Jewish family living in a Christian society.
My husband comes from a Christian family and we have always gone to his parents house for Christmas celebrations. I come from a Jewish family so we have always celebrated Hanukkah at home. In the past it did not bother me that the kids were being exposed to Christmas because they were too little to understand the larger picture - it was mainly about seeing family and celebrating another holiday. Now my oldest is 5 and is beginning to ask about Santa (Does Santa bring the Hanukkah presents too? Who is Jesus?). Our youngest is 3 and isn't quite there yet, but we are wondering if it would be wise to continue celebrating Christmas.
We have always explained it as something that grandma and grandpa do and that we are happy to help them celebrate, but that we are a Jewish family. What is your opinion? How should a Jewish family deal with Christmas especially when Christmas is such a production during the holiday season? (Not so much for Hanukkah.) I don't want my kids to feel like they are missing out. More than this, Christmas has always been a huge part of my husband's holiday celebrations and I think he would feel sad if his children didn't grow up with Christmas memories.
I grew up next door to German Catholics in a mixed suburb of New York City. As a child, I helped my “adoptive” Aunt Edith and Uncle Willie decorate their tree on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and would be expected to spend the Christmas morning in their home. Their Yuletide gift to me was always the same: a one-year subscription to National Geographic. After my father remarried (I was 15), I spent Christmases with my step mom’s Methodist family a few towns over.
On Christmas Eve her Uncle Eddie, who had his own natural padding and snowy beard, played a waving Santa Claus enthroned atop their town’s Hook-and-Ladder as it traveled the streets of Centerport NY. I knew, loved and miss this particular Santa Claus very much indeed.
Your in-laws are not asking you and your family to attend Christmas mass in church with them nor are they foisting Christian beliefs on your children. It sounds like your husband’s parents simply want to share the love and joy they experience when their family gathers in their home at Christmas. This is a good thing and a great blessing worthy of your unequivocal and unambiguous embrace! Rarely will life give you such a rich and teachable moment with your children.
As they should and as they always do, your children will ask you both lots of questions about Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa’s. You might try something like this:
“We’re Jewish, Grandma and Grandpa are Christian. We love going to their home and love sharing Christmas with them just like they love coming to our home to share Passover with us. Religions and cultures are different from one another. When we’re in their home, we love and respect what they do because we love and respect them. They do the same when they’re in our home.”
When they ask you whether or not you believe in Santa Claus, tell them the truth in terms they can understand. Keep it simple, direct and honest. Here’s my answer:
“I believe that gifts come from the love that we have for one another. Sometimes beautiful things happen to us in ways we understand, and sometimes beautiful things happen and it’s a mystery. I like the mystery and I always say "Thank God!" And no, I don’t believe in Santa Claus, but lots of Christians do. Grandma and Grandpa are Christian. They respect what I believe just as I respect what they believe. I don’t go around telling them that I disagree with them. I love them way more than I disagree with them. Instead, I find ways we can share our traditions so that we can care for one another even as we believe different things.”
In short, your in-laws share their love for you and your family through Christmas at their home. Your family’s Jewish identity is a function of how you live on the remaining 364 days of the year. Christmas with your in-laws has the potential to teach your children a deep appreciation for our multicultural world and the many different roads people take to the Sacred.
You can teach your children far more than tolerance. You can teach them acceptance.
About Rabbi Marc Disick
Rabbi Marc L. Disick DD graduated from SUNY-Albany in 1980 with a BA in Judaic Studies and Rhetoric & Communications. He lived in Israel for his Junior year, attending the UAHC's College Academic Year on Kibbutz Ma'aleh HaChamisha and for his first year of rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. During his rabbinical studies, Disick served for two years as a Chaplain at Princeton University and completed coursework toward an MA in Jewish Education at NYU before attending Hebrew Union College in NYC where he was ordained in 1986. Read more about Rabbi Disick.