The other week I read an InterfaithFamily post about menorahs and the “December dilemma” aka “the holidays.” This time of year can be complicated and straightforward at the same time. For example, throughout our entire dating relationship, it was assumed that we would spend Christmas with my Catholic family, since it’s an important time for both my faith and family, and Zach’s Jewish family doesn’t celebrate Christmas. No dilemma about which family to go to, or who to visit first, or who gets Christmas and who gets Easter. From that perspective, Christmas, for us, is easy.
The idea of interfaith, and the stories I’ve read and listened to from individuals at InterfaithFamily, Interfaith Families Project of Washington and through the Interfaith Voices podcast, have shown me another complication that I never even thought about: The reluctance of some to even observe Christmas. This fascinates and terrifies me. I have spent time this past year trying to better understand the struggles and compromises of these families. While every family is different, I can understand feeling overwhelmed by the idea of all the trappings of Christmas—the shopping, the incessant carols and the plethora of red and green everywhere.
For me, the Christmas season has always started with Advent, a time of preparation that begins four Sundays from Christmas Day. This time of year reminds me to prepare for Christmas in a different way than making a list and checking it twice. Advent offers the opportunity to pause and ponder what Christmas is about—making room for God in our lives, as the people of Bethlehem made room in a barn (OK, maybe we can do better than that). Christmas is about giving gifts to others in need and those that we love. It’s about recognizing the angels among us, and trying to maintain that kindness year round.
During Advent, Zach helps me make Christmas cookies for my grandparents using my grandmother’s recipes—she used to make six different kinds of cookies, many dozens of each kind, for her four children and their families. Returning that favor, albeit on a much smaller scale, always feels special.
I understand people’s frustration with Christmas, because I sometimes experience that myself. And the story from the IFF blog post I read about “putting a menorah on it” resonated with me because, in some ways, I seek to incorporate Hanukkah into our new family traditions as much as Christmas is a part of my family’s traditions. With Zach, I’ve bought cards and sent gifts, looked up latke recipes and lit a menorah. Last year, we lit the menorah with my family and taught everyone to play dreidel (Zach hustled us, of course). We even watched a Hanukkah TV special together. Because Hanukkah overlapped with Christmas, we were able to celebrate a truly interfaith holiday, and teach my family some new traditions as well.
The lunar calendar doesn’t make things as convenient this year, and Zach isn’t pushing to do quite as much for Hanukkah. We’ll be going back to my parents house for Christmas. We’ll exchange gifts, go to mass on Christmas Eve and cook a nice meal together. And the two of us will attend a Hanukkah event at an area synagogue. It may seem unbalanced or unfair, but that’s the extent to which Zach feels the need to celebrate the holiday. And if he doesn’t want to make latkes or put a big menorah in the window, that’s OK because we’ll make matzah brie and host a seder during Passover; we’ll say kaddish when we visit family graves and we’ll have a mezuzah in the door of our home. We’ll emphasize what it means to Zach, and to our family, to be Jewish throughout the year, rather than trying to compete with Christmas in December.