At my elementary school growing up, the teachers would have us form a long line outside the door before we could enter the school in the morning. It was there that the real conversations happened.
I remember one particular one, on a cold December morning. “Are you Christmas or Hanukkah?” we all asked each other, interviewing each person in line. We kids understood that the differences between Judaism and Christianity mattered most in December, so why not cut to the chase? What was important to us about religion was not whether you followed Jesus or Moses, but whether you got presents on one day or on eight.
Giving Hanukkah gifts and remaking Hanukkah as a holiday to compete with Christmas has helped American Jewish children negotiate the complex reality of being a Jew at Christmastime. It also raises an interesting question. Why create Hanukkah as a competition to Christmas? Why not adopt Christmas as the national and secular holiday people argue that it has become? After all, that is what we do with other formerly Christian holidays.
As a child, the Jews in my town had no problem with secular celebrations of Halloween/All Saints’ Day and (Saint) Valentines Day. We embraced Thanksgiving, which has an official place on the Episcopal calendar and was often celebrated with a church service. So what is different about the customs of Christmas lights or Christmas trees that drove most Jewish families, whatever their observance, to draw the line at Christmas?
Today, these questions take on a further complication in Jewish, inter-married families, where one spouse grew up with Christmas and the other spouse grew up with drawing the line at Christmas. The Jewish partner may be at a loss to explain why it is so hard to erase that line and have a Christmas tree in the house. The non-Jewish partner may have a hard time understanding what is so religious about Christmas lights or tree; or why there can’t be compromise around a tree when indeed they have agreed to support raising Jewish children. Many families have worked out creative compromises, but in some, tensions remain.
I would like to look at one of these questions. What is so religious about a Christmas tree that many Jews decide not to have one, or have one but are not quite comfortable about it? The answer lies in the way we understand the word “religious.” If religion is only about theology, then indeed Christmas trees and lights would be secular. They need be no different from trick-or-treating.
Religion, however, especially Judaism, is about much more than theology. For most of us, theology is only a small part of religion. Food, smells, stories, music, culture, memories and the like comprise the most powerful experience of religion as it is lived. There is nothing particularly religious about chopped liver — but on Pesach, on your grandmother’s dishes, with your great-grandmother’s recipe, and Seder melodies as a backdrop — chopped liver is religious. It is one of the many cultural details that help us place ourselves in a larger story, a story that helps us shape our identity.
For me as a child, Christmas was dazzling. But it also brought up questions of identity. Who am I and where do I fit in? Christmas may have been beautiful, but I could not write myself into that story. I understood Christmas lights and wreaths on houses as marks of identity — like our family’s mezuzah on the door. It made no difference that there was no religious dogma surrounding the wreath or the tree. Theology was irrelevant — as irrelevant as it was to my Jewish star that I wore around my neck. It was not about religion but religious identity. A wreath on Christmas was like chopped liver on Pesach.
Thinking about Christmas customs not as religion but as identity, heritage, and family story may help all of us and especially inter-married couples understand and talk about some of the issues that may come up year after year. It also may help Jewish parents think about how they want to help their children form their Jewish identity at that time in December when they may feel their difference most.
Jewish families in America and in our community have resolved these questions in many different ways with integrity. We have a lot to learn from one another in sharing how we deal with this issue in our own families. If we could all release our judgments and just listen to one another, we might come to a deeper understanding of the question, and it might also help us shape a practice that feels good to all of us.
Over the coming month, I invite you to have these conversations in a loving and trusting environment. May we support each other as we grapple with these challenging questions. Happy Hanukkah.
The writer is the spiritual leader of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.