Hello, December. It’s that time of year here in America. A time for good tidings of comfort and joy. A time for happy family memories and meaningful traditions. But for me and my interfaith marriage, December now comes packaged with a new tradition–an annual holiday cry (or if I’m really being honest…cries. Plural.)
Now I know a lot of people cry during the holidays. The pressure of stressful travel plans and forced family gatherings is enough to make many people crack. But for the interfaith family, December is a particularly lonely time.
I go online to order holiday cards. (I am a little behind this year.) I skip over the red and green ones, the ones with Christmas trees or holly or Santa Claus, the ones that say “Merry Christmas,” the ones that say “Happy Hanukkah,” and I’m left to choose from lots of cards with “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” written generically on the front. After much much agonizing, I pick, “Peace, Joy, and Love.” Those are things that people from all faiths want, right?
And yet I still have the fear that, despite all my genuine efforts to wish our diverse loved ones well this December, our card will not be received without pause. Will our Jewish friends find the card too Christmas-y? Will they shake their heads because my poor husband has sold out and married a non-Jew? Will my Christian friends feel that they’ve lost me, when they notice my card intentionally leaves Christ out of Christmas? That some may read our card as a cautionary tale about interfaith families makes me sad.
We start the month off with the end of a very early Hanukkah. I marvel at how many candles there seem to be in the box on the first night, and I’m always sad how quickly the eight nights seem to pass. I love the quiet and reflective nature of this holiday. I love staring into the beautiful flames with my husband. I miss them when they are gone. That some believe this is not my holiday to celebrate makes me sad.
My husband lovingly helps me put up a small eco-friendly recycled cardboard tree. We chose it because it has little in common with the gigantic trees that fill the shopping malls this time of year. But I know its presence may still make my husband feel a little like he’s a stranger in his own home. It’s nothing like the tree I grew up with, but maybe it’ll be enough to inspire some warm nostalgic thoughts.
Growing up, I loved Christmas. I loved singing carols, I loved evergreen trees decorated with lights, I loved volunteering with my church at a shelter for women and children in downtown Detroit. In my home, I learned about Jesus’s humble beginnings and the miracle of his birth. I celebrated Jesus’s birthday in our family’s church, and walking around the shopping centers and along our neighborhood streets, it felt like everyone was celebrating along with me.
But loving someone who is Jewish made me see the ways in which this time of year can be alienating for the child who does not celebrate Christmas. Christmas trees and Santa Claus and nativity scenes don’t bring warm nostalgic thoughts; they’re just a reminder that you’re not like everyone else. I’m grateful for this new perspective, which enables me to empathize with my husband. But the fact that Christmas will never be the same as it was in my childhood makes me sad.
During this time of year, my husband and I are so aware of the various voices telling us how “true” Jews and Christians should each be celebrating. And the fact that we honor both holidays in our own little ways seems sometimes like a red flag to Jews and Christians alike, a signal that we don’t really belong. Sometimes it feels like by choosing to marry each other, we gave up the right to call Hanukkah, or Christmas, our own.
I look at the maple tree outside our kitchen window. Its leaves were lush and green this summer, then vibrant red this autumn, but now I stare out at bare, cold, empty branches. And somehow, witnessing that maple tree’s loss this December, I feel a little less alone.
My husband and I have lost the simplicity of our respective childhood celebrations. But we’re discovering new traditions together. We may never have the full support of all the different voices during this season, but I’m working on not letting that get to me so much. I have hope that December will keep getting better each year, that we’ll create new memories. Memories that our daughter can recall fondly as she grows older. That she can choose to continue, or to build upon. In any event, maybe it’s time to stop feeling the need to please everyone. Maybe this time of year should be focused less on what we need from others, and more on what others need from us.
I’m going to add “hope” to that list of well-wishes on our holiday card: Peace, joy, love, and hope. Even in my sadness, those are things I wish for everyone–for those celebrating the birth of Jesus, for those lighting candles together for eight nights, for those celebrating their African American roots, for those who are sure of what they believe, and for those who may never be sure. Peace, joy, love, and hope. Stripping away all other holiday expectations, we’ll do what we can to make these our family’s contributions each year at this time. And for as long as there is unrest, injustice, or despair, either far away or (especially) in our own backyard, my new tradition will continue, and I’ll shed some December tears.