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