My wife, Bonnie, and I have been intermarried long enough now that our traditions together seem normal to us. This speaks volumes because hardly anything in an interfaith marriage is normal. Nearly twenty years after we said “I do,” it’s diffi cult for me to remember celebrating Christmas without Hanukkah. It’s hard for me to even think back to a time without kids. Now Gabbi is in high school, and Molly is in middle school. From the very beginning, Bonnie and I decided to raise our children in her faith, Judaism. While we were determined to make sure that our daughters knew that they were only Jewish (not both), we also decided that they would learn about my Christian holidays. As a result, we have created some wonderful memories and traditions of our own.
Although interfaith couples often refer to the last month on the calendar as the “December Dilemma,” it isn’t an either/ or situation for us. I “help” my wife and daughters celebrate their holidays, and they “help” me with mine–much as someone would help a friend celebrate a birthday. It may not be your birthday, but you can give presents, play games, have cake, and take home a loot bag.
Trust me, it wasn’t easy coming up with a solution that fi t our needs. Bonnie and I spent a few years before we were married working it out. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to celebrate Hanukkah and totally ignore Christmas. This turned out to be especially true, living in my hometown with my Christian parents and siblings. My brother and sister both have families of their own. They both have Christmas parties. Do Bonnie and I really want to deprive our daughters of a wonderful timeat their cousins’ house?
Fortunately, in this world, there are two sides to every latke. During Hanukkah, it’s our turn to invite my family over for our annual party. My parents, siblings, and all the cousins come over to our house to light the menorah, sing songs, and spin dreidels. Ironically,helping us celebrate Hanukkah has become a tradition for my side of the family, as well. Over the years, we’ve all come to realize that this should be a fun time of year–not something we need to feel uneasy about. That would be like going to Briarwood Mall, seeing Santa, and pretending he’s not there. You don’t have to sit in his lap. However, you can take a minute to enjoy the looks of fascination on children’s faces. (Unless the little tikes are first timers—then you can chuckle at how frightened they look.)
Of course, I realize that not everything always goes according to plan. For instance, Hanukkah starts December 1st at sundown this year. It’s soearly that I’m afraid we might have Thanksgiving/Hanukkah
issues to work out. We could call it the “November Dilemma.” How could we possibly justify eating fattening latkes when we just gained twenty pounds from all that turkey?
Seeing the humor
An early Hanukkah poses another minor problem. I guarantee that many Christians don’t know that Jewish holidays are based on the lunar calendar. Many expect Hanukkah to always fall around Christmas. One year, Hanukkah ended on December 7th. I remember some well-meaning people wishing my wife and daughters a happy Hanukkah on December 24th. We thanked them and chuckled later that it’s like saying “Happy Halloween” at Thanksgiving. I probably would have made the same mistake before I met Bonnie and learned about Judaism. We just try to maintain our sense of humor during this month.
A delightful December
As we help celebrate each other’s holidays, the important part to us is for our daughters to feel secure that they and their mother are Jewish, and that I am Christian. Knowing this has enabled us to enjoy the season much more. When Gabbi and Molly light the menorah, we feel warm inside. When our daughters give their Christian cousins a present on Christmas morning, we feel happy. When my thirty-nine-year-old brother gets competitive at dreidel, we can’t help but laugh. What a delight this month of December really is.
Jim Keen is a free-lance writer and life-long Ann Arborite. He lives in town with his wife, Bonnie, and daughters, Gabbi (14) and Molly (11). He is the author of Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org