I am the Jew in my interfaith marriage. Both of my parents are Jewish. But when I think of the December holidays, I reminisce primarily about Christmas, a holiday we always celebrated because my parents loved the romance of it. I can recall the aroma of fresh pine as we decorated the tree and the mugs of hot chocolate by the crackling fireplace on Christmas Eve, classical music playing softly in the background. I remember our neighbor dressed as Santa who ho-ho-hoed into our living room with presents in tow as my sister and I tried to imagine how we could possibly fall asleep later that night so that the “real” Santa would deliver our toys. The world always seemed happier in the days leading up to Christmas; people in stores smiled more and my parents fought less. It was a magical time, and I never wanted to give it up.
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciated Hanukkah, too. After all, I got eight nights of presents, and I liked latkes (the traditional potato pancakes eaten at Hanukkah). But, for me, Hanukkah held none of the universal, omnipresent charm that Christmas did.
When I married my husband, who grew up in a Christian tradition, I assumed I would keep my Christmas. Even after we agreed to raise our children Jewish, I figured that we would celebrate Christmas anyway. After all, Daddy’s holidays would be just as important as anyone else’s in the family.
But my husband had other ideas. Christmas and Christianity, as it turned out, simply weren’t that important to him. And if our kids were going to be Jewish, he reasoned, then, in part for clarity’s sake, we would celebrate Jewish holidays. Period. I pointed out that I was rarely confused as a child about the fact that I was Jewish despite the presence of Christmas in my home. But he countered with an argument I had not anticipated: we ought not to disrespect Christianity by celebrating Christmas when we did not believe at all in the holiday’s religious significance.
His argument appealed to the multiculturally sensitive person I like to think I am, but still I resisted. How could I give up something that had played such a key role in my childhood? Years later, giving up Christmas is still the only religious issue my husband and I have ever fought over, and the fight lasted seven years–until our first child was 2.
Eventually, my husband’s strong conviction won me over. I was also persuaded by the fact that deep down, I knew he was right. So I gave up my Jewish Christmas. Now we have no Christmas tree in our house in December, only Hanukkah decorations and generic winter icons like stuffed snowmen who smile at us from the mantle and glittery snowflakes we hang in the window–right above the menorah.
As it turns out, fate or Santa Claus or God must have been on my side just a little bit, because my sister, who is also part of an interfaith marriage, is raising her children Catholic. So we travel with our husbands and our children to each other’s houses to celebrate each other’s holidays. We’re teaching our kids that this is appropriate, because this is one way we honor all the different aspects of our family’s diverse heritage.
I still miss the ritual of removing cherished decorations from boxes filled with yellowed tissue paper and hanging the meaning-rich ornaments on pine-scented boughs. But as I have grown and matured, so, too, have my perception and my observance of Hanukkah. I’ve learned to make sufganiyot, the sugar-coated Israeli jelly doughnuts that are a mouthwatering part of the holiday, despite the fact that I had never even heard that word as a child. I’ve learned how to play dreidel. And I’m teaching all of this to my children, accompanied each year by multiple readings of the Hanukkah story so that they can understand what all the glitz and eight nights of presents are really about.
And when I really start to miss the fun of celebrating Christmas in my own home, I drop a mini-candy cane into my mug of hot chocolate, and get back to frying my latkes.