“What do you want to do about Christmas this year?”
The question from my mother-in-law, asked over breakfast during a late summer visit from New York, took me by surprise—first of all because it was months until the December holidays would be upon us, and second because my son, Ben, will be 4 soon, and the topic had never come up in this way.
If you’ve guessed that interfaith marriage figures heavily in this story, you’re right. My mother-in-law is Jewish; my father-in-law is Catholic. My husband, Rob, has three siblings. They all had bar and bat mitzvahs, though Rob is the only one who married a Jewish spouse. Of my in-laws’ six grandchildren, Ben is the only one who is being raised Jewish; the others are baptized Catholics and Lutherans.
The family has always celebrated Christmas. It’s a fun, festive time of year in the house, complete with a tree, stockings, lots of guests and a traditional Christmas dinner. My mother-in-law often uses words like “cultural,” “family” and “American” when she talks about what it means to her, and those are all accurate descriptors of the way they celebrate—there’s no group attendance of church services, no nativity scenes on the front lawn or under the tree.
I used to be skeptical of the “it’s cultural, not religious” claim about Christmas, mainly because it strikes me as something Jews can say to justify participating in a holiday that’s really not for us. And, personally, I had never really felt Christmas envy. In fact, childhood stories of how my great-grandparents placed a Christmas tree in their window in Cincinnati in celebration of the “American-ness” of the holiday always had a tinge of warning for me, reinforcing that being American shouldn’t mean acting Christian. But when I became part of Rob’s family, I saw how Christmas can bring people together for no more complicated a reason than because it’s a fun tradition. I relaxed into Christmas as a day of gifts, good food and lots of laughter. What’s wrong with cultural Christmas? After all, aren’t Rob and I cultural Jews for the most part?
Then Ben was born, and some of my old angst came back—specifically around Santa. Ben’s cousins believe in and enjoy Santa, but Rob and I are just not comfortable with Ben receiving any gifts “from Santa.” It’s somehow too magical, too close to a religion-like belief for us. Last year, Ben excitedly exclaimed, “It’s Doc!” each time he saw the bearded guy (referring to the Snow White dwarf), and we never corrected him. This year, I’m honestly not sure how to explain Santa without ruining the fun for Ben’s cousins and Christmas-celebrating friends.
So what do I want to do about Christmas this year? My answer turns out to be pretty uncomplicated—the stocking embroidered with Ben’s name should stay on the mantle alongside those of my four nephews and baby niece. Anyone who wants to present Ben with a gift on Christmas Day will be enthusiastically thanked. We will tuck into Christmas dinner with gusto, looking forward to the roast turkey and baked ziti my mother-in-law is famous for. And if Ben asks, we’ll tell him that Santa visits his cousins’ houses, but not Grammy and Poppy’s. If he asks why (and he probably will), we’ll offer a simple answer, like, “Because we’re Jewish,” and move on.
He might be a little confused, but that’s OK; there’s room in his life to be confused about something really fun that happens when we visit his family in New York. And at home, Ben’s life is full of enough wonderful Jewish experiences—challah baking, tot Shabbats, a weekly preschool enrichment class at our synagogue, lots of Jewish books and music—for us to be confident he is building a solid Jewish identity. “Happy Hanukkah!” he shouted gleefully each night of last year’s holiday after he joined us in singing the blessings with adorable 2-year-old pronunciation. And it was a happy Hanukkah. Later this month, it will be again. It will also be a “Merry Christmas,” no blessings required.
Like so many other moments in parenting, the Christmas “question” has proven to be an opportunity to let go of rigid notions of a “right way” and “wrong way” to do December, and to embrace and enjoy the celebrations we’re fortunate enough to get to share with people we love who love us.
Lucky, lucky Ben—he gets to enjoy the best of both worlds.