Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wishing the World Well

Wishing Each Other Well in December

“Mommy, why don’t we celebrate Christmas?”  At some point, every Jewish family faces this question in some form.  With great respect to all of the many families and relatives that are a part of our community, I would like to offer an approach that can only strengthen our relationships and help our children in their Jewish upbringing.

I believe that it is important for children to be raised with a single system of religious symbols.  Adults can manage to sift through the complexity of fully formed, mature differences of a spiritual nature.  Young children can’t.  They need consistency, and even if mom and dad are of different faiths, they need the home to reflect the singular Jewish identity that they are forming.

The key to the “December Dilemma” is to wish your Non-Jewish friends and loved ones  well on their holidays, and to ask them to wish you and your children well on your holidays – all the time keeping a strict separation between your home as a Jewish Home, and another’s home as a Christian home.  The problem will be solved the day we can say to our children, “Remember when Uncle Chris came to seder and gave us a Passover card?  Well this is his holiday, and we’re going to wish him a happy day just like he wished us.”  

Even if the Christian is a close relative, a family that has decided to raise Jewish children should not have a Christmas tree or receive Christmas presents.  At the same time, we should be absolutely comfortable supporting that person in having their own tree, and we should certainly give him or her presents and a card in celebration of their holiday.  I am always touched when a Christian friend sends me a card at Rosh HaShanah – and I do the same in return at Christmas.  And while different people have their own levels of comfort, I am happy to attend Christmas dinner at a friend’s house.  I don’t sing carols that proclaim the birth of Jesus, but I have nothing against “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”

December is a lovely time of year.  The darkness is ablaze with lights.  And Chanukah has become very important in this regard.  But it is also important to put it in the proper context of a minor holiday.  Chanukah pales in comparison to Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, or even Sukkot and Shavuot.  Chanukah truly is a minor holiday.  But the surrounding world demands that our children feel that Judaism is as positive, generous, and loving as the Christian world is every December, so we have exaggerated Chanukah.  All in all, I see no harm in that. Sure!  Make Chanukah festive! But please be sure that the day Chanukah is over, it is over, and that it is not mistaken as a “Jewish Christmas.”

Christmas is not a “secular” or an “American” holiday.  It is a profoundly religious Christian celebration – even if a given Christian does not relate to it as such.  Secular holidays, such as Memorial Day, Labor Day, or Martin Luther King Jr. Day are open for Jews to celebrate - and in fact it would be seriously negligent for us to ignore them.  But overtly Christian days, such as Christmas and Easter, are clearly inappropriate for the Jewish home and family.  I think that it would be disrespectful to the millions of believing Christians for me to take one of their religious symbols, like the tree, and to use it for a secular purpose.

So what do you say to your child who asks you why we don’t celebrate Christmas?

It is important for us all to do 3 things every December.  

  •  First, every year we should talk with our kids about Christmas, Christians, and being Jewish.  
  •  Second, we should make a point of spending serious time and money sending greetings and gifts to our Christian friends and family at this time of year. Our children should be a part of this. 
  •  Third, we should make a point – well ahead of time (June or July would be good) – of letting our Christian friends and family know how grateful we are that they wish us well and want to be generous to our kids, but that Christmas presents for our Children are inappropriate.

Christians should wish us well on Rosh Hashanah and Pesach.  We should wish them well on Christmas and Easter.  Mutual respect, honesty, and clarity are the best possible results.

We should educate the well-meaning Christians in our lives about our observances.  Thank the stranger who wishes you a “Merry Christmas” and wish them a “Happy New Year.”  But if the Merry Christmas comes from a close relationship, take a moment to talk with them in a frank and loving manner.

The world is big enough for many avenues to God, and each of them  can be a source of blessing for the other.

Happy Chanukah, and a Happy (secular) New Year to each of you and yours.

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