Since marrying my non-Jewish husband, I have struggled with how to handle Christmas. It was easy when it was just the two of us. We’d spend the day with my husband’s family, exchanging presents and belting out Christmas carols. I even attended Midnight Mass with his family once or twice, just to know what the experience was like.
But, when we had kids, my perspective changed. Judaism became something that I wanted to protect for my kids. I worried that celebrating Christmas would be one more step towards assimilating, towards losing the Jewish spark that I so wanted them to have.
When I talked to my husband about not celebrating Christmas, he was hurt and sad. Christmas to him was not a religious experience but a day of family and happy memories. It was one of the few remnants of his Catholic upbringing that still brought him joy—a joy that he (understandably) wanted to share with his kids.
We agreed to continue to celebrate Christmas, but without church or Jesus or Santa. For many years, Christmas in our house was simply a tree, some songs, and lots and LOTS of gifts.
In fact, as the years went by, the gifts seemed to be all there was to it, really. Just like their Christian friends, my kids would pore through catalogs, making long lists of their heart’s desires. Only, instead of asking Santa, they were asking us. All day. Every day. Non-stop. Until the big day arrived.
Because when you take the spiritual core out of Christmas, what you’re left with is an enormous tinsel-wrapped heap of materialism.
This year, I vowed to change that. Yes, we will still celebrate Christmas, yes they will still get gifts, but…This year, instead of trying to satisfy the spiritual void with materialism, we’d fill it with Judaism.
In recent years I have seen many interfaith families try to make Christmas feel a little more Jewish. Friends of ours have put Stars of David on their Christmas trees and placed a Mensch on the Bench around the house to lead up to the holiday season.
I’ve always hesitated to do these things out of fear that it would confuse my kids. Better, I thought, to be clear that Christmas is not a Jewish holiday. To enjoy it as something separate that recognizes their dad’s heritage.
But this year, for the first time, I believe I’ve found a meaningful way to bring some Jewishness to Christmas.
Judaism to me has never been just a series of rituals and rules, but, rather, a perspective—a way of looking at life that commands you to do better, be kinder, and think of the needs of others. I see that in the central role of tzedakah to Jewish life, in the many charitable events our local synagogue holds, and even in the way high profile Jews like Mark Zuckerberg make grand displays of generosity.
And so, this year, I vowed to find the Jewish perspective on Christmas. It wasn’t hard once I began looking. This time of year is filled with opportunities to do good. From donating to oxfam.com to sharing this Kveller article, there are lots of very easy ways to make a positive difference in the world.
Still, it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to do something that was more hands on, something that would benefit people right in our community. My first step was to sign up as a volunteer to help at a meal for local homeless people.
When I found out that the meal was taking place at a church, I balked a little. I wondered if there would be a religious slant to the free meal, or if I would feel out of place for being Jewish.
What I discovered was just the opposite. Even though our town does not have a large Jewish population, the main coordinator, along with several of the volunteers, were Jewish. Together we sat with the homeless men and women, eating and sharing stories. I left with a full heart and a big surge of pride for my Jewish roots.
Finding ways for the kids to get involved was a little more difficult. But, after a little research I discovered this site which provides links to many different volunteer opportunities that welcome children as volunteers.
The kids and I sat down together last night and chose a few things that we could do as a family; playing board games with senior citizens, assembling meals for the homeless, and donating gently used toys to families in need were a few of the opportunities we decided on.
I made sure that at least one of our volunteering experiences would be through a Jewish organization so that my kids could see the strong link between Judaism and social justice.
Christmas will always be a Christian holiday. I want my children to know and understand that. But, I also want them to know that any opportunity to implement the Jewish value of community service is a great one… and even better if it falls during a time of year that often gets bogged down in tinsel.