This is the conversation I had with my 4-year-old daughter the other night over dinner. Grandma Dede is my beloved paternal grandmother, and today we are driving to New York to celebrate Christmas with her and the rest of my extended family.
In past years there was a large Christmas tree in her living room, decorated with lights and ornaments. During Hanukkah, there was a menorah on the table next to it, most likely supplied by one of my aunts or uncles. There were stockings and presents and we sang Christmas carols. One year some of my cousins accompanied their non-Jewish friends to Midnight Mass and went caroling in the neighborhood. My grandmother lives in a smaller apartment now, so if there is a tree, it too will be smaller. But we’ll still have presents, and yes, there will be talk of Santa among some of the younger children.
My grandmother is Jewish. She was born to a Jewish mother and father, who were each born to Jewish mothers and fathers. She has been married twice, both times to Jews. My grandmother’s favorite food is a bagel covered in lox with a healthy schmear of cream cheese holding it all together, and she has also been known to serve paella with shrimp and sausage buried in mounds of rice. She lives in a town with a significant Jewish population, she plays bridge every week at a Jewish country club, and most of her friends are Jewish. My grandmother did not give any of her five children Hebrew names, and none of them had bar or bat mitzvahs as children. She is a very assimilated, yet culturally Jewish woman.
I am well aware that there are as many Jews out there who will relate to her choices as there are who may be confused or horrified by them. I welcome that debate, and I think there are valid arguments to be made from every perspective. I suspect my grandmother’s relationship with Judaism is the result of the era and culture into which she was born, as well as her training and career; she is a scientist and mathematician. Religious observance has never seemed to be of much interest to her, and if she worships at any altar, it is that of her family, her children and step-children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Her Christmas tree has nothing to do with Christianity; it is a relic of the generations that came before her, the ones that struggled with the same issues of identity and community that every member of minority groups and immigrant populations face. The tree is a symbol of the choices her family made as they found their place in the American landscape, one which was simultaneously abundant with possibility and at times inaccessible to those who weren’t Protestant.
My husband and I have made a different choice. We do not celebrate Christmas in our home, but there has never been any question in my mind that we will once again attend, and participate fully, in my grandmother’s Christmas festivities. I’m looking forward to it. The girls’ cousins will have stockings, as will they. (I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy red and green Santa stockings, so I found these adorable robot ones instead.) If there are carols to be sung, I will sing them. This celebration is not about Christmas vs. Hanukkah, it’s about being with my family, and respecting my grandmother’s traditions.
The interesting question to me at this time is how to explain all of this to my rule-abiding daughter. She’s intensely curious and constantly trying to figure out the rules of our family, our community, and the natural world. Right now, it goes something like this: You’re either Jewish or Christian, and if you’re Jewish, you do Hanukkah and synagogue, and if you’re Christian you do Christmas and church. So, how do we understand a Jewish grandmother who does Christmas? How do you explain assimilation, and related concepts such as anti-Semitism, minority and majority culture, and secular holiday celebrations to a 4-year-old?
The answer for me, right now, is that you don’t. As smart and curious as she is, my daughter isn’t ready for all of that yet. One day she will learn about the complexities of our family, about all of the ways in which we decidedly don’t follow the rules. For now, it’s enough for her to know that Grandma Dede is Jewish and celebrates Christmas because that’s what makes her happy. It’s enough for her to see, and experience, that in our family, being together is more important than which holiday we’re celebrating.
For more on Jews and Christmas, read how to lose the chip on your shoulder during Christmastime, the great Christmas tree debate, and a Christmas lesson for my Jewish son.