As Lisi recalls it, the third thing she ever said to her future husband – even before telling him her name – was that she wanted to raise her kids Jewish.
Lisi’s husband, who is from Yorkshire, U.K., and was brought up in the Church of England, was OK with raising Jewish children. But it was also important to him to continue celebrating Christmas and Easter.
Lisi, who asked that we don’t use her full name, wondered what that meant, and if it would be compatible with the upbringing she imagined for her future kids.
“I’m thinking, I’m not schlepping my little Jewish kids to midnight mass,” she said. Fortunately for Lisi, the things he liked most about Christmas were being with family, giving out presents and eating bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon. “I thought he was joking and being super sweet,” Lisi added.
During one holiday season before Lisi and her husband were married, they put up a Christmas tree. After all, Lisi says now, “it’s just festive.” That changed once they had kids, as she felt it was dangerous to keep a tree in the house with a young child and her husband didn’t mind its absence. She spruces up the house with Hanukkah decorations during the holidays, but she will swap them for Christmas ones if there’s an overlap between the two holidays. She doesn’t worry that the switch will confuse her kids.
“Christmas is only a day,” she said. “It’s not such a huge effort. We mix it. My kids go to Jewish day school. They know a thousand per cent in their souls that they are Jews.”
Even though Lisi is confident that her children can handle two holidays without compromising their Jewish identity, not every parent of Jewish children is so sure. In a 40-plus-minute question-and-answer session from two years ago, which is available on YouTube, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom, a Reform shul in Vancouver, fielded questions from concerned parents about what he calls the “December dilemma.”
The details of the questions differed, but there were a few underlying themes that came up again and again. Perhaps the most common was: how do you make Hanukkah seem special, when it’s competing against the Christmas juggernaut?
Rabbi Moskovitz stressed that elevating Hanukkah is not about diminishing Christmas.
“I think that we fail when (we) try to compete with Christmas. We just don’t have the media budget,” he quipped. Instead, it’s about trusting the pillars of Jewish identity that parents instill in their children. Christmas is a beautiful holiday, said Rabbi Moskovitz, and we don’t need to deny that to appreciate Hanukkah.
“Of course they’re going to like Christmas lights … but just because they like it, doesn’t mean they will suddenly abandon all of the other things that you have sown seeds for,” he said, adding that, in his experience, “that is not what has led children from synagogue life or camp life to joining churches or other things.”
The questions being asked of Rabbi Moskovitz make it clear that the holidays cause anxiety for a large portion of the community, but there are also many Jewish families, interfaith or otherwise, who are comfortable straddling the lines between festivities.
Montrealer Rebecca Morris grew up with a Christmas tree, Christmas dinner and Santa Claus, and she celebrates Christmas the same way with her Christian husband and Jewish children. Even if she had married a Jewish man who wanted her to give up these Christmas traditions, she says, “That would have felt like a loss to me.”
Morris’ secular German-Jewish maternal grandparents even kept Christmas trees in their homes, both in pre-war Germany and after they escaped to England before the Holocaust, and her grandmother’s recipe for a German Christmas fruitcake known as stollen has been passed down through the family.
For Morris, celebrating Christmas is a cultural statement, not a religious one. It defined her upbringing – and therefore her – and it’s a joy she wants to pass on to her kids. On the other hand, when she tried participating in the religious elements of Christmas, like midnight mass, it felt strange to her.
That tracks with something Rabbi Moskovitz said in his session about the nature of these seasonal celebrations.
“So much of these particular holidays, Hanukkah and Christmas, is cultural, and within that sort of cultural definition is really family tradition. What we are talking about is not so much what people believe, but who they are,” he said.
Furthermore, Rabbi Moskovitz said that helping others celebrate Christmas should actually be viewed as integral to the spirit of Hanukkah, not counter to it.
Hanukkah is first and foremost a holiday celebrating religious freedom through the victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrians. (The miracle of the oil lamp was a later addition by the rabbis, who wanted to incorporate an element of holiness into the holiday, he said.) And what better way to honour religious freedom than celebrating with different faiths?
Rabbi Moskovitz doesn’t ask his congregants to abstain from any and all Christmas activities. In fact, depending on the situation, he even encourages it, telling them that, “My Hanukkah tells me everybody should be allowed to freely and joyfully celebrate their own holiday, and my presence (for various family members) makes their holiday. So I’m the gift.”
“It is a mitzvah to help somebody else find joy. It is a great mitzvah,” he added.
What’s crucial for Rabbi Moskovitz is how people choose to celebrate non-Jewish holidays. He doesn’t exclude certain aspects of Christmas for being too religious. In fact, he said that going to Christmas mass is an activity that a Jewish family could participate in if it brings great joy to a family member or another loved one.
Rather, Rabbi Moskovitz is concerned about creating clear and distinct boundaries between the holidays. In his opinion, it’s preferable to skip a day of lighting the Hanukkah candles to celebrate Christmas and make it up the next night than to blend the two holidays into one.
“Sometimes half of one thing and half of another thing is a whole of nothing. When we mix Hanukkah and Christmas, we actually diminish the significance of both holidays. In addition, it is confusing to children (and to adults if we really think about it),” he told The CJN in an email. “I think that if there are two religions being practiced in a home, they should be celebrated independent from each other, so that each can stand on its own, in its full meaning and beauty.”
The logic behind Rabbi Moskowitz’s statement makes sense, but it’s not for everyone. Chayan Lewis, who is from Toronto, has one night to celebrate the holidays with her majority non-Jewish extended family, and even though she lights the candles in her own home, she wants to able to celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas with her loved ones.
“It’s sort of a combination of two cultures that I think is very important to embrace. I am one person, and so to have those sorts of dualities within myself, I think it’s important to celebrate those things,” she said.
She enjoys her family’s annual Christmas dinner with latkes and a hanukkiah next to the tree, which she sees as a way of acknowledging her faith and that of her other Jewish family members.
“I think as long as you’re celebrating that there shouldn’t be a negative aspect to it just because you’re not celebrating ‘the right way.’ I think as long as you’re acknowledging that that part of you exists, then that in itself is the right way to celebrate,” she said.