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December Dilemma: Advice for interfaith families celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah

(Markus Spiske, unsplash)

Seattle’s Jennifer Stock grew up celebrating Christmas.

“Christmas for me was fun, it was important, there were lots of rituals involved.”

But when she married a Jewish man 30 years ago, holidays got complicated.

“Growing up and ever since, Christmas was the very worst time of the year,” said her husband, Sidney Stock.

Sidney was born in 1935, in the midst of the Hitler regime, and when he was four years old his father told him to keep his Judaism a secret. He says the strong Christmas presence in America has always made him feel isolated and lonely.

“Everybody but me got to celebrate it,” Sidney said. “I never had a Jewish friend growing up.”

So he felt uncomfortable bringing Christmas into his married home.

“The first Christmas, Sidney went along,” Jennifer said. “Then he realized he didn’t want Christmas in his home. That created some problems because for my children, he was the stepdad taking away Christmas. So that was not easy.”

The Stock’s situation is just one example of what’s now called the December Dilemma; interfaith couples and families trying to figure out how to celebrate their respective holidays without burning out, making someone uncomfortable or confusing the children. It’s especially relevant this year because Christmas and Hanukkah overlap.

Rabbi Sydney Danziger gets a lot of December Dilemma related questions from her congregants at Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue. She estimates 50-70% of couples there are intermarried.

“As a rabbi, when I see Hanukkah Christmas tree ornaments or I see cards that say ‘Chrismukkah’ on them, I realize that it’s done with the best of intentions which is to bring both faiths in and find a happy medium. But at the same time, to combine those symbols and convolute them takes all of the meaning and magic out of them. One of the things I’m really big on is if you’re going to celebrate both holidays, celebrate them both separately.”

She doesn’t like to see Hanukkah turn into ‘Jewish Christmas.’

“Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday. This is a very, very, very, very minor holiday and the only reason it has been sort of heightened to where it is now in America is because of Christmas and families feeling like they have to compete. So I always instruct families not to make it a competition. I would even suggest, and this is kind of weird as a rabbi, I would say if you’re going to do both in your home, do Christmas up really big because it’s a very important holiday for Christians. And during, say, the holiday of Sukkot, do that up really big. Go big on Passover, go big on Rosh Hashanah. Make it a specifically important Jewish holiday and really do that big.”

Rabbi Danziger understands the December Dilemma; she grew up in an interfaith home.

“If my mother listens to this, I have to apologize to her because for so many years we forced her to do Jewish Christmas, which is Chinese food and a movie,” Rabbi Danziger said. “We were completely unwilling to do anything Christmas related.”

She encourages her congregants not to follow in her footsteps and urges Jews to help their partners celebrate their holidays.

“In Judaism, it is a mitzvah, it is a commandment, that we help other people celebrate in times of joy,” Rabbi Danziger said. “Christmas is a perfect example. If you have family who are Christian, and this means something to them, you don’t have to have it as your own holiday. But you are somewhat commanded to help other people enjoy it.”

As for the Stock’s, they settled on:

“One year Christmas, one year Hanukkah, which didn’t satisfy my children, necessarily,” Jennifer said. “But that’s the way it went. That worked for a few years. Sidney knew he would have his time and my kids knew they would have their time. So that was the compromise. I was a little sad to give up Christmas, too, because it represented happy times.”

Now the Stocks celebrate Christmas at Jennifer’s daughter’s house and everyone is happy with this arrangement. She said it’s taken nearly their entire 30-year marriage, ‘a long loving process’ to figure it out. They joined Temple B’nai Torah about 15 years ago and having a Jewish community relieved much of the sting of isolation Sidney used to feel.

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