Does there have to be a December Dilemma?

Fear or Love?

I’m going to try to navigate through this holiday season with love.

For those of us who don’t celebrate Christmas, navigating our ways though this season without fear can be a daunting task.  There are Christmas parties, Santas at the mall, trees with presents, and our Jewish children are peering at it all with wide eyes, wondering why they can’t have it.  We worry, we wonder, we try to protect their Jewish identities, and we end up wrapped up in the “December Dilemma.”

Well, you know what?  I love Christmas lights.  I love singing corny carols.  I love going to other people’s Christmas parties.  I’m going to go straight into them with that love, and bring my kids along with me without fear.  Why?  Because I have faith in them.

I always say that every adult Jew is a “Jew by Choice.”  Being born Jewish doesn’t mean you live Jewish.  If you choose to live Jewish, you have made a decision.  You are a Jew by choice.  For me, I have chosen Jewish because I have found that the cycles, the words, the melodies, the tastes and smells and traditions of Judaism help center me, remind me of who I want to be, bring peace to my life, and inspire me to leave this world better than I found it.  I’m not a Jew because I was raised Jewish. In fact, I explored far away from Judaism, and only after that exploration did I choose Jewish.  No matter how many Christmas trees I help decorate, or parties I go to, or Santas I see, that Jewish commitment will not be drawn out from me… or from my children.

Here is my Christmas story to illustrate.

We were on vacation in a tiny resort in Fiji.  There were, maybe, a dozen children there, and they all became friendly and played and did various activities together.  It was Christmas Day, and an employee of the resort ran out to the pool, where nearly all of the children were, and yelled, “Santa is here!”  Every child jumped out of the pool and followed… except for mine, who froze and stared at me with wanting eyes.

Now, my children never sat on Santa’s lap or had a Christmas tree, but clearly they were the only Jewish children there.  What to do?  For me, it all came down to this question:  If I tell them they have to be the only children who don’t go, have I helped or hurt their connection to Judaism?  Here entered my fear.  But my fear wasn’t that actively participating in a Christmas celebration would make them less Jewish.  My fear was that exclusion from a Christmas celebration would make them less Jewish.  If they were left on the outside because of me and my decision of how their Jewishness should rule this moment, my fear was that they would resent me and Judaism.

So, we told the kids they could go see Santa, and when we got there, an employee of the resort was dressed up.  The children all sat in a semi-circle, and “Santa” basically did all kinds of goofy things, made the children laugh, and then called each child up by name and handed each of them a small present.  Did my husband and I feel a little awkward?  Yes.  Did the kids love it?  Yes.  Would it have been more awkward if they had been the only two children who didn’t go, and there were two little presents left sitting out with their names on them?  Yes.  Have they been asking to do Christmas ever since?  No.

Did we do the right thing?  I don’t know.  But we did our best.  And the experience created an amazing opportunity to dialogue with our kids about being Jewish, about Christmas, about how we can be a part of those celebrations sometimes but that those traditions aren’t ours.  I invite you to consider chatting with your children about this season.  You may be surprised by how much they can internalize, and if you decide, as a family, what elements of non-Jewish tradition you are going to embrace in and outside of your homes, you can relax and enjoy knowing the family has agreed.  Remember, the only people who have to feel okay with that decision, is you.  Then maybe we can take the dilemma out of December.

So, this winter season, let’s watch out for fear.  I know we often fear that our children won’t embrace the religion we raise them.  But my truest fear is that my children won’t be happy, healthy and spiritually well.  I choose Jewish because I believe Judaism will help make that reality for them and me.  But, honestly, if something else calls to them to be happy and healthy (and it won’t be because they hung out with Santa), if they need to go exploring the way I did, I will always support their journey toward wellness, even if it leaves the Jewish path for awhile or forever.  I will demonstrate my deepest love for them by giving them that space.  And I have faith they will, as I did, find their ways home.

Share your December Dilemma stories here!

P.S.  There is a great article on this subject (and where I borrowed the pic) at http://www.reformjudaism.org/blog/2012/12/06/redefining-so-called-december-dilemma

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7 thoughts on “Does there have to be a December Dilemma?

  1. I was raised in 1960’s Brooklyn. Every Jewish family I knew (and there were many) had a Christmas tree, as well as a menorah. None of us kids ever questioned our Judaism. We were quite clear about who we were, and are. We just loved the sparkle of the ornaments and the lovely fragrance of the tree. Now that I’m raising kids, I’ve referenced my own experience to guide them in taking part in various Christmas traditions – we go to a caroling party every year, and when they were little, Santa even left them a little (99C) something at the fireplace because “he doesn’t want the Jewish kids to feel left out”). And we put out cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. They’re all Bat/Bar Mitzvah’d, two are confirmed, and nobody is (so far) questioning their Jewish identity. I’m so glad we get to celebrate with our fellow humans!

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  2. Cheryl’s comment is very interesting to me. I’m a Christian raising a Jewish daughter with my Jewish husband, and when she was little the rabbi at our temple advised us not to have a Christmas tree, so since then we haven’t. On the other hand, my husband was raised by Jewish parents a lot like Cheryl was, with a Christmas tree. I’m going to give this some thought. We’re used to not having the tree now, but we still have ornaments that we haven’t used since our daughter was a baby, and I certainly wouldn’t mind having the tree back. (We had a tree for her first Christmas, when she was 8 months old. We decided to raise her Jewish when she was 10 months old.) Hmmm.

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  3. Thea, my husband was raised in a conservative Jewish home, and is uncomfortable with having a tree, so I found other ways to help my kids participate. I guess whatever a family negotiates as comfortable for them…

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  4. Cheryl, I grew up with you, same time, same community and I knew of no Jewish family who had a tree. That didn’t stop us from celebrating Christmas with our Christian friends. It was clear to us that it was their holiday, but in the same way when we’d go to a friend’s birthday party and celebrate that it was his or her day. Same ideology. And it worked for my brother and me. I went on to raise my own children the same way. I allowed my kids to sit on Santa’s lap because they wanted to, but they were all cool with telling Santa that they were Jewish and they just wanted to say hello.
    Funny turn of events, too. I’m now married to a Catholic who doesn’t care about having a Christmas tree!

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  5. Diane –

    Fabulous article!! Really. And, I imagine, very helpful to a lot of people. I’m so impressed.

    I’m so sorry I couldn’t keep our date a couple of weeks ago. I’d still really like to see you.

    OK, so this isn’t doing the hora in the bathroom, but it is something you can bring your kids to for full out Chanukah fun . . . . we’d love it if you guys can come . . . (this is Larry’s band)

    In whatever fashion, let’s make a date.

    All my best, Melanie

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