The December Dilemma


cover_rotatorThe December Dilemma is a reality that many interfaith families live out each holiday season. The big question is how to balance Christmas and Chanukah in a family with a parent of each faith.

While families try to keep the meaning of Chanukah at the forefront of their celebrations, it can be difficult living in a country that overwhelmingly celebrates Christmas, particularly in a season such as this during which Christmas Eve and the first night of Chanukah share the same date.

Some experts argue that the overlap between these two holidays is a good thing, however. It provides the ideal opportunity for open dialogue between faiths, setting the grounds for each to share important traditions and practice.

“It is important to try to recast what has sometimes been referred to as ‘December Dilemma’ to ‘December Delights,’” said Dr. Keren McGinity, director of Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement at Hebrew College’s Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education. “Give interfaith families the support they need to honor all of their family members as well as engage Jewishly. There is no one correct way. What is better for one family is not necessarily the solution for another.”

For interfaith families that are raising their children Jewish, the problem boils down to how to celebrate and properly respect the traditions of each faith without confusing the Jewish identity of their children.

Keren McGinity teaches her daughter, Shira, about Chanukah. (Provided)
Keren McGinity teaches her daughter, Shira, about Chanukah. (Provided)

“I encourage families to celebrate with distinction,” said McGinity. “By that, I mean to acknowledge both the sanctity of the Christmas holiday and the historical reality and meaning of Chanukah. Not to blend the two, but rather to celebrate each on its own merit and in ways that are meaningful to all parties.”

Sykesville resident Erica Hamilton is Jewish, but she and her kids celebrate Christmas with her husband’s family. This year, to accommodate observance of both holidays, the family simply planned parties on different dates to give room for proper celebrations.

“It took some extra planning,” said Hamilton, “but it is very important to me that for our children, Chanukah is seen as this great celebration just as much as Christmas, rather than one over the other. We give them both their due.”

Even on Christmas Eve, the Hamilton family won’t skip saying the Chanukah prayers and lighting the menorah before celebrating with the Christian side of their family.

Pikesville resident Mandee Heinl is raising a Jewish family with her Catholic husband, Steve. Although their kids are still very young, Mandee said they understand the Chanukah traditions, and she plans to teach them more of the story as they get older. The Heinl children also experience Christmas at their grandparents’ house, where the family has a tree and gives out presents.

“I know some families do presents for Chanukah, but we have never done that. We try to stick to traditions such as jelly doughnuts and latkes, lighting the menorah, gelt and dreidels,” she said. “Santa does not come to our home. I think it would be confusing to have more than one religion in our home, but that could change, and they will have more questions as they get older. Right now, we stick to Chanukah to keep it clear for them.”

Celebrating non-Jewish holidays with friends and family should never be considered detrimental to a child’s Jewish identity, some rabbis say.

“I tell families with Christian relatives that they should make sure they are celebrating whatever holiday with that side of the family. It’s an often-used analogy, ‘They’re going to someone else’s party,’” said Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. “The core issue is if your goal is to raise Jewish children, the majority of your own celebration should focus on emphasizing the Jewish holiday.”

Heinl thinks the cross-pollination of religions can be a learning experience for children.

Mandee Heinl’s two young children experience both Christmas and Chanukah. (Photos by Mandee Heinl)

cover5“We have Jewish children, but they don’t miss any Catholic traditions that my husband wants in their lives,” said Heinl. “He takes my lead in Judaism, and I take his in how he wants to integrate his religion into it. I’m not intimidated by another faith, I have a strong Jewish identity and I hope my kids will too, but I think being around other religions is a win. They learn about people and cultures that believe differently than they do. I still want to instill a strong Jewish identity in them, but I don’t think teaching them to be wary of a different faith is a good way to do that.”

The Hamiltons and the Heinls are far from the only families navigating a two-tradition holiday season. Twenty percent of married participants in the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community study were intermarried.

That rate was 42 percent among non-Orthodox Jews ages 18 to 34. Thirty-six percent of practicing Jews surveyed in the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” were intermarried, compared with 79 percent among secular Jews. According to the study, 35 percent of Jews intermarried in the years 1970 to 1974. Between 2005 and 2013, 58 percent of married Jews had non-Jewish spouses, a 23 percent increase.

Commercialization and the Holidays

While Chanukah is of less religious significance to Jews than Christmas is to Christians, some feel Chanukah has become commercialized like Christmas due to the coinciding timing of the holidays.

“I think a lot of Christians would say Christmas is out of control in its commercialism,” said Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation. “I have for a long time advocated bringing Chanukah back to its humble origins, I don’t think it is helpful to the celebration of Chanukah to try and make it into Christmas. We should celebrate it for what it is, but I don’t think there is a need to make a huge to-do about it.”

For Jews from other countries, celebrating Chanukah in America might come with a bit of culture shock.

“It has become clearer to me as a South African Jew that there is a different way to celebrate Chanukah,” said Lara Nicolson, director of Shalom Baltimore and interfaith engagement at the JCC of Greater Baltimore. “When I moved here 12 years ago, I realized American Jewish culture is very different. We have fallen into buying eight gifts and decorating our home for Chanukah. We have lights, and [our home] looks festive like many of the non-Jewish homes in the neighborhood.”

JCC interfaith engagement director Lara Nicolson plays dreidel with Ayelet Snyder at Foundry Row. (Photo by JCC)
JCC interfaith engagement director Lara Nicolson plays dreidel with Ayelet Snyder at Foundry Row. (Photo by JCC)

Having been raised in a country where Chanukah was more about family being together, lighting and displaying the menorah and making the traditional food, Nicolson was surprised by the complexity of the American holiday season. “Christmas is a major holiday for Christians, and it has become a very big American civil holiday,” she said. “But the gifts and the trees, they are American traditions.”

While some feel the commercialization of Chanukah can be detrimental to its traditions, it can be a valuable opportunity to educate non- Jews about the holiday — many are unaware of its minor religious significance relative to other holidays.

“The Chanukah that we talk about as competitive of Christmas is the American cultural observance, not the religious observance,” said Rabbi Jessy Gross, senior director of Jewish Learning at the JCC of Greater Baltimore. “Setting up a dichotomy between the holidays is something interfaith families have to deal with, but ultimately as a rabbi, I want people to feel connected to Jewish values and ideologies. What I care about is that people know the story of why we celebrate Chanukah in the first place.”

So how does one emphasize Chanukah to children in a way that empowers their Jewish identity? Tradition is a big part of Chanukah, but simply lighting the candles and giving gifts is not necessarily provoking the questions that an interfaith family may need to ask.

“It’s a holiday about rededicating [the Second Temple], so every year, we need to rededicate ourselves to retelling the story of Chanukah and doing so with historical accuracy,” said McGinity.

PJ Library, housed in the Macks Center for Jewish Education, provides resources for families looking to educate interfaith children about the holidays. Gabrielle Burger, the library’s director, recommends “Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise” by Karen Fisman.

“A little girl named Rachel travels to visit her Italian grandmother during the holiday season and made a special menorah to bring with her,” Burger said. “The menorah gets left behind, so the girl’s non-Jewish grandmother goes to great lengths to create her own handmade menorah and to surprise Rachel with it as a gift so that they can continue to celebrate the holidays together.” This book illustrates how interfaith families can respect each other’s traditions.

This holiday season, PJ Library is sponsoring thematic Chanukah programming addressing heroism and how people can be heroes with a program focusing on the story of Judah Maccabee and how the Maccabees were able to fight for religious freedom, “which is something everyone can appreciate,” said Burger.

Saadya Baron and her daughter enjoy the JCC Chanukah event at the Foundry Row Wegmans. (Photo by JCC)
Saadya Baron and her daughter enjoy the JCC Chanukah event at the Foundry Row Wegmans. (Photo by JCC)

“We are moving away from the concept of gift giving — people were so happy to hear we were moving the needle away from commercialism and more toward how you can be the best and make the world a better place,” Burger said. “At every Chanukah program this year, we are giving out a bag with four pieces of gelt, two dreidels and a ‘value’ card that speaks about Judah Maccabee and the concepts of gevurah (heroism) and chesed (kindness), the values we are instilling in our families.”

While some might question giving out a gift bag after stating that the library is moving away from gifts, it is for good reason. Rather than seeing it as giving a gift, Burger sees the gift bags as something people can take home to continue Jewish education.

“We are trying to get a paradigm shift for the entire family,” Burger said. “It’s easier to understand [the meaning of Chanukah] by talking about the different aspects rather than the religion behind it. It is considered the festival of lights, and we talk about different kinds of candles and how you can bring light into your community. Gelt is so important because after the Maccabees’ victory was the first time that Jews minted their own money with Jewish symbols and Hebrew letters on it.”

Reinforcing Jewish Identity

“I always have been of the belief that these issues are more complicated for adults than for children,” said Schwartz. “A child is told, ‘Oh, you’re Jewish or Christian or whatever,’ and the child says, ‘OK, that’s me.’ A kid can go to a grandparents’ Christmas celebration and know, ‘I’m a Jew, but my grandpa isn’t.’ It isn’t going to impact the child’s Jewish identity, and I remind families of that. It’s also important to make sure to respect the other faith’s traditions, to understand what they are and what their origin is. [A Christmas celebration as a Jew] doesn’t have to be threatening.”

Rabbi Busch echoed Schwartz’s sentiment.

“It will be simpler for both the children and the family if they have only one religion in their household, but I know families very successfully raising Jewish children who take a more complicated approach,” said Busch. “If the goal of the parents is to raise Jewish children, the Jewish holiday experience should be the bigger thing in their lives than celebrating anything else. I believe kids can go to other people’s celebrations and understand one family member is not Jewish but the family as a whole is. It is a complicated message, but kids can understand.”

Busch stressed that it is important for kids to be given a consistent message. If a child is observing Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, “they can deal with the complications that arise from celebrating [Christmas] one specific time of the year.”

Snowflakes and eight supersized spinning dreidels displaying Hebrew letters adorn the McGinitys’ home. (Photo by Keren McGinity)
Snowflakes and eight supersized spinning dreidels displaying Hebrew letters adorn the McGinitys’ home. (Photo by Keren McGinity)

Another aspect of the December Dilemma is determining how and where to celebrate both holidays and what objects — Christmas trees, menorahs, gelt — to incorporate into those celebrations.

Often, the solution is a happy combination. Nicolson’s family embraces the mutual holiday season. “We go to a friend’s house who are not Jewish on Christmas,” she said. “We celebrate Christmas Eve and realize it is an important holiday for them. But we also bring latkes and our menorah … We honor them and respect them and give gifts with them, then we go participate in Mitzvah Day.”

However, Nicolson understands that for some interfaith families, celebrating Christmas will be more significant than to others. “Chanukah is not one of our major holidays, and we have eight days,” she said, “so if a family is feeling challenged, you can accept that for some families, [Christmas] will be their major holiday and you should not compete. For those that are struggling with how to steer their traditions in an interfaith family, the first point is that the couple really needs to discuss it with each other first to figure out how to blend their family and faiths.”

For example, Gail Willoughby raised her family Jewish, and although her two children are now grown and identify as Jewish, their entire family attends a Christmas Eve candle-lit service out of respect for Gail’s husband and his traditions.

“We support him during his holidays as he supports us,” explained Willoughby. “He is a Christian, but he is at Beth El a lot for services and not just during the high holidays. It’s interesting because when we go to church, the people are always very curious about our holidays and will come greet me and say happy Chanukah and ask about our traditions. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me, and the conversations that we have are very positive.”

Willoughby regularly engages in interfaith dialogue as a member of the interfaith chavurah at Beth El. A majority of the members are couples with a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father who are raising a Jewish family. As far as celebrating during the holiday time, the general consensus was that they celebrate Christmas with that half of the family but also take their menorah along with them.

“It’s a great time to share our traditions. No one is forgetting Chanukah, we are just showing respect for family members who aren’t Jewish,” said Willoughby. “There is nothing wrong with going and celebrating with family members who aren’t Jewish because there are traditions in other parts of the family.”

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