Coping with the December Dilemma
Five ways to help families meet the challenges of the holiday season.
The Tapestry of Jewish Time
A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Life-Cycle Events
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin
Adult: Jewish Practice
The December Dilemma
The sociologist Egon Mayer estimates that today one million Jewish households count non-Jews as members of their families. It is no wonder, then, that December presents great challenges to many families' holiday celebrations. Differing levels of religious interest and commitment may also cause difficulties in families where both husband and wife are Jewish.
When one of my sons was very young, he told me emphatically that he wanted to be Christian. Calmly reminding myself that he was only three and therefore that this was neither a theological rejection nor a permanent life decision, I asked him why. He answered that he wanted Christmas lights on our house. How much more powerful is the attraction of Christmas in families with mixed religious traditions.
Watching a spouse put up a Christmas stocking for your newborn can open doors to an identity that had been tucked away. Having your children watch their cousins enjoy the presents, magic and warmth of Christmas can lead to some stressful conversations. Adding to the stress is the recognition that holiday celebrations involve not only immediate household members but also close friends and extended family. Trying to do right by everyone else's desires and needs while trying to be true to yourself can be quite taxing.
During this time of year, most Jewish newspapers run articles meant to help families manage the holiday season. Rabbis and friends are also good sources of advice. In the meantime, here are a few suggestions that may help:
1. Begin with You. Before dealing with everyone else, focus on what you want and need. What symbols do you want in your home to express who you are or who you are becoming? If you have children, what symbols and experiences do you want etched into their memories? Your loved ones will make claims on you, as friends and family members have a right to do. You can best be prepared to respond to them with understanding, patience, clarity and generosity when you know what you want.
2. Talk it Over with Your Spouse or Partner. Clearly communicate what you need. Work out ways in which he or she can either be a part of your celebration, or give you the room—literally and figuratively—to celebrate by yourself.
3. Choose One Tradition for the Children. Children enjoy sharing in others' celebrations. They understand going to a friend's birthday party or an aunt's wedding. Their ability to share makes it easy for them to be involved in all kinds of family holiday celebrations. It must be made clear in any celebration, however, whether they are celebrants or spectators, for children need to know who they are. Simply exposing them to the beauty of various traditions and then permitting them to choose when they get older does them a disservice. They never have the benefit of being fully immersed in the fullness of any one tradition. And to expect them sometime later to choose one parent's religion over the other is in reality to ask them to choose one parent over the other.
4. Set a Year-Long (or Longer) Schedule of Holiday Celebrations. Where you celebrate each holiday is often more important to a family than how you celebrate it. In discussion with your immediate and extended family decide on your itinerary of holiday celebrations and then send out a written copy to everyone. This is not a panacea, but it can avert recurring arguments and can show that everyone's needs have been considered.
5. Try to Help Everyone Stay Focused on the Religious Integrity of the Rituals and Symbols. Compromise is great, but not when it violates religious boundaries. No reindeer-shaped Hanukkah candles!
As for my son—he was proud of being a candle in his school's Hanukkah presentation a few years later. He danced with joy and spun like a dreidel when we sang songs after lighting his hanukkiyah, the one made from clay and nutshells. He diligently makes up his wish list of Hanukkah presents with his siblings. For now, at least, he is pleased that he is a Jew.