As more and more Jewish people marry partners of other faiths, the question of what to do during December becomes more common. If the non-Jewish partner converts, does that mean that he no longer gets to hang stockings or decorate a tree? If she doesn’t convert, does that mean the kids should expect a visit from Santa? Should they leave the jolly, fat guy a plate of gelt and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) rather than cookies?
There is no correct answer when it comes to the "December Dilemma."
"Growing up, we always exchanged presents on Christmas," said Jennifer Ventress, who grew up with two Jewish parents. "We lit the menorah each night of Chanukah, but we did not do anything with gifts."
Today, Ventress is the married mom of 11-year-old twins. Her husband isn’t Jewish, but she and her family observe only Jewish holidays at home, other than exchanging gifts on Christmas. "We have a Christmas tree, but we light the menorah on each of the eight nights of Chanukah."
The "secular Christmas" is more popular than one might imagine. Ed Case, CEO of InterFaith Family, says that his organization’s research confirms that many families with one non-Jewish parent — although they may be raising their children Jewish — still participate in some Christmas traditions. In the group’s 2011 December holidays survey, he notes: "Interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas is now common. These families see their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature and not confusing to their children’s Jewish identity."
Case, who started his nonprofit 11 years ago, says the reasons for Jewish families incorporating some type of Christmas celebration into their holiday observances are varied. Some families feel it is important to acknowledge the traditions of the non-Jewish parent.
"In our survey, we found that 48 percent of respondents have a Christmas tree in their home," Case said. The mission of InterFaith Family is to support families with one non-Jewish parent who are committed to raising their children Jewish. One of the most common questions Case receives involves the Christmas tree issue. "I think it is very possible and common for an interfaith couple to decide that their family is Jewish and their children are Jewish and to celebrate Christmas in a nonreligious way," Case said.
Although many people consider Christmas to be a secular celebration of family and friends, others find the religious significance of Christmas to be a deal-breaker — even in an interfaith household.
"Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas," said Rabbi Wendy Spears, a freelance Reform rabbi based in Woodland Hills. "When I teach ‘Introduction to Judaism’ courses, some students ask me if they can have a Christmas tree if it has no religious significance to them. I ask them what it is about the tree that makes them want it. If it’s just something under which to place presents, I ask them if there is a Jewish symbol that they can use instead."
The most important thing, Spears says, is to have shalom bayit, peace in the home. "If not having a tree is going to endanger the marriage, then get the tree," she said.
Moving beyond the tree, the focus on holiday celebrations in December can pose unique challenges for interfaith families. The non-Jewish partner still has a family, and it’s important to acknowledge his/her traditions. "The family might say, ‘We don’t have Christmas at our house because we are Jews, but we go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house to celebrate their holiday with them. We are having fun celebrating with them.’ The parents have to be clear on the message," Spears said.
Spears said that many people tend to forget the importance of Chanukah and do not make the effort to make it fun and exciting.
"The message of Chanukah is that it is important to stand up and celebrate your uniqueness," Spears said. "One of the big messages of Chanukah is not to assimilate. Don’t be like everyone else. The Maccabees were fighting against the Greek culture [fighting to remain Jews]."
To that end, Spears said, it’s important to tell the story of Chanukah, to decorate and celebrate. Now more than in the past, she said, there are lots of places to find fun Chanukah decorations.
"Having those tangible objects is really helpful and affirming," she said. "I think it’s good to make the celebration a big deal. I don’t think there is anything negative in affirming being Jewish in a celebration and having fun."