My oldest two children are old enough to remember Easter candy lovingly deposited by the Easter bunny in our yard. Likewise, they recall Christmas mornings replete with a fresh-cut tree and mounds of presents from Grandma stacked on the sideboard. Unfortunately, no matter how festive I made these holidays, I couldn’t help noticing, as I sipped some celebratory eggnog, or rolled out the colored eggs, that my husband was less than thrilled with the festivities. As a Jewish man, his faced paled on having a tree in his home. He was even less excited about coloring those eggs. I felt this was less than fair. Hadn’t I embraced Hanukkah? Weren’t we an open-minded couple? Well, it appeared that, despite our efforts, something hindered our good intentions.
My husband and I had agreed to give equal time to both traditions. As I had explained to him, I wasn’t religious–it was the tradition I was after. Christmas was not a religious celebration for me as much as a family one. Easter was about celebrating spring and enjoying the candy left by a large, harmless bunny. I was reluctant to give up my holidays.
Although I hadn’t grown up in a religious family, we celebrated the traditional Christian holidays and milestones. Christmas had been a high point in a long, bleak winter in Rome, New York. The Christmas Eve oysters, the sparkling lights, relatives’ footsteps crunching up the path–well, these were all things I didn’t want to give up. As for Easter, I still remember the excitement of the soft spring mornings, getting ready for church–my sister and I dressed in pastels and outfitted in new, white gloves and tiny purses.
When I had my oldest son, I cheerfully set out to recreate these holiday traditions. After all, he had had a bris, the ritual Jewish circumcision ceremony for a baby boy eight days old, so I figured we were covered on the Jewish side. For four years we celebrated both my husband’s Jewish traditions and my own. December would find us buying a tree and lighting the menorah. April was a long month of candy hunting and a traditional Passover.
Of course, before I could join in my husband’s celebrations and recreate them in our home, I had to learn about them. There is no dearth of material. I like Jewish Family Celebrations by Arlene Cardozo (St. Martin’s Press, 1985) which offers both the traditional take on the holidays as well as creative updates, and includes prayers and recipes, as well. As I researched, however, I found myself completely captivated by Judaism. This incredible faith offered it all to me. The meanderings of the Easter bunny simply didn’t compare to the wandering of the Jewish people during the Exodus. If my traditions had religious underpinnings, perhaps our adjustment would have been more gradual. As it was, I decided that we needed to raise our children totally within Judaism. It was a big change for us all, especially during the Christmas and Easter seasons.
My husband was relieved, of course. The children didn’t rebel outright, but they had plenty of questions. Why wasn’t there a Christmas tree anymore? Why did we not join in the Easter candy hunt in the park? These are fun events for children, and I had removed them from their lives. So we talked about it. I told them that I understood that these were pretty holidays and we could admire the decorations and good spirits. But I explained that Daddy was Jewish and that it was vitally important that we respected his holidays. His holidays were to become our holidays because if they did not, we might lose them forever. So we needed to manage.
However, I developed my own personal survival guide to help us all with the transition. The first thing I needed to do was make sure that Judaism didn’t become a substitute for the trappings of secular holidays. We avoided that by actually studying Judaism as a family. We told the stories behind Hanukkah and Passover. These holidays offer endless opportunities for children to be involved with and excited about their heritage. While we give gifts at Hanukkah, we do not engage in massive shopping trips. We get a few small things and use the opportunity to renew supplies that they need anyway, like crayons, markers, and other drawing materials. Our favorite activity is frying latkes, delicious potato pancakes. Likewise, Passover is fascinating for children. They decorate seder plates. Any sweet tooth they might have is satisfied by their grandmother’s boxes of ring jells and fruit jells that line the counter.
In fact, the traditions of Judaism probably provide the root of many secular celebrations. And many seasonal activities are not at all disrespectful of Judaism. For instance, we can bake beautiful cookies any time of year and decorate them appropriately. Gingerbread men and houses are not inherently Christmas decorations. What about a beautiful gingerbread house with a menorah in the window? Spring is just not spring in my house without baskets of blooming bulbs such as hyacinths. On Christmas and Easter day, we love to go out for traditional Israeli food, as we are lucky enough to live in a place where there is a thriving Jewish community. If we cannot get out, we buy food beforehand to have at home. Those days are now special days for us in that we renew our commitment to Judaism. We spend the day talking, listening to Jewish music, and otherwise enjoying uncomplicated pleasures.
I have not missed my holidays at all. What hindered our enjoyment before was the lack of meaningful content and sense of commitment, which I feel we’ve now inserted into our celebrations. These are the decisions that define a family and we have happily defined ourselves as a Jewish one.
We still face problems, however. Many members of the larger Jewish community do not consider us a Jewish family at all and would not until my children and I underwent an Orthodox conversion. Therefore, there are times when we feel alone. Also, we needed to inform family and friends that we would not be celebrating their holidays anymore. We didn’t want to disparage anyone, nor did we want to discuss the philosophical implications of the decision, so we simply offered that we thought it might be confusing otherwise for the children. We have focused on Thanksgiving and birthdays as time for holiday visits and celebrations.
My family has been very supportive of our decision to maintain a Jewish household, but my mother still sends gifts wrapped in Christmas paper. They are sent as Christmas gifts because that is her holiday, and I respect it. They are received as reflections of her love for us. She buys the children Easter candy as well, but the gentle approach of spring, while reminiscent of the gentle hop of bunnies, now puts us poignantly in mind of the freshly renewed step of the Jewish people, revived by yet another Passover.