We celebrate both Hanukkah (Chanukah) and Christmas, since I’m Jewish and my husband was raised Catholic. On one hand, our kids get the best of both worlds and learning about multiple cultures. On the other hand, however, it just doubles the amount of work and obligations during the holiday season. The struggles of raising interfaith kids during the holidays are real, especially this year, when Chanukah and Christmas overlap. It’s even more challenging to distinguish the two holidays when the first night of Chanukah is on Christmas Eve, and you’re tripping over dreidels to stick gifts under the tree, while simultaneously wondering, "What does any of this mean to us?"
I am not religious, but have carried on some of the cultural traditions I’ve learned from my Jewish, New York City based family. For example, we explain the story of Chanukah to the kids; how a drop of oil that was only supposed to last one night miraculously lasted for eight, extending the length of time the temple was lit so the Jews could rebuild their community after it had been seized by foes. To honor my husband’s Christmas traditions, we hang white lights and stuff stockings and, when the kids were little and didn’t fight us on their outfits, we’d dress them in adorable, elf-like ensembles.
Still, combining our cultures is not without its challenges. We have to explain to the kids that it’s important to respect the history of their parents’ different upbringing, even if we don’t believe in all the spiritual aspects of them. To know those things is to understand where we came from, what influenced our families to make the choices they did, and why my husband and I choose not to subscribe to any particular religious teachings. I'm sure the "easy" thing to do would be to simply say, “Happy holidays,” exchange gifts, and be done with it. However, if you want your kids to learn what these particular holidays mean to you, as an interfaith family, you have to do the work and deal with the crazy struggles of raising interfaith kids during the holidays:
Trying Keep Christmas From Dominating The Season
America is Christmas-centric this time of year and, as someone raised Jewish, it’s easy to feel left out of the holiday hoopla. I expect it’s even more so for people celebrating Kwanzaa.
Since my husband is Catholic, and I’m not, it’s important that Chanukah gets some attention in the midst of the Christmas spirit. I love our fake pre-lit Christmas tree, with lights controllable by an app, but I also love spinning dreidels with the kids and teaching them what the Hebrew letters mean. I don’t expect our culture to give equal airtime to celebrations other than Christmas, if the majority of our population is Christian, but I do expect everyone to acknowledge there is more than one way to enjoy this time of year, even if you’re agnostic.
Managing Gift Expectations
Eight nights of Chanukah plus 12 days of Christmas does not equal 20 presents for each of our kids. We made them aware of that reality, pretty much at birth. We get them a couple of significant gifts and then a few tiny things (and clothes, because they always need clothes). We also expect them to gift others. We don’t require them to spend any money, so we encourage them to make cards or other projects. “It is better to give than to receive,” is the mantra of the season (much to our kids’ chagrin).
Explaining What’s Real
The stories behind the birth of these holidays may or may not be true, but they should be told, as they pertain to our cultures (if not our religion, since we don’t practice any). Goodwill is real. Helping others in need is real. Peace on Earth is theoretically real. Celebrating the holidays is, for me, a way to show our kids that we can end the year on a positive note. We can reflect on the joyful aspects of our lives, and make plans on how to be even better next year.
Deciding Whether Or Not To Explain What’s Not Real
We don’t participate in those Elf on the Shelf shenanigans. My kids got wise to Santa Claus a couple of years ago (although my 9-year-old daughter remains a little sad that things IRL aren’t so magical). However, everyone has their own comfort level when it comes to what’s best for their children to believe. I don’t feel great lying to my kids, but I can understand if others don’t see these same tactics as lies. Wishful thinking can be a beautiful thing.
Keeping Them From Mainlining Sugar
Everyone knows the real spirit of the season is loaded with super sweet sugars and frosted within an inch of its life. Cutting my kids off from Christmas cookies and Chanukah gelt becomes the greatest challenge of the holidays.
(And you thought Halloween was tough.)
Preventing Holiday Overload
So. Much. Celebrating. Between the family celebrations, the school parties, the city’s holiday events, "Death By December" might become a real thing. There comes a point in the month when it all just stops being fun because, with so much celebrating, the season loses its special vibe.
We are lucky to have so much to celebrate — our health, our safety, our family — but we don’t need to keep the party going every hour of every single day. I’ve said “no” to a bunch of invitations in holiday seasons past, for the simple sake of keeping our family life manageable (and to prevent our children from feeling entitled).
Not Letting Stress Take Over
I admit, I fall prey to feeling overwhelmed by all the commitments and endless to-do lists that this season brings. Holiday cards, teacher gifts, Secret Santa exchanges, wrapping, eating, desperately trying to keep that one red dress I have stain-free; it’s a lot and, honestly, none of that stuff truly matters. If I let all the stuff I feel I must do consume me, I lose sight on the whole concept of “joy.” Remember feeling “joy?” That’s kind of the point of the holidays. I don’t kill myself trying to take the perfect holiday portrait of our family. If I didn’t do a good enough job hiding the gifts and the kids find them, oh well. If I feel obligated to buy a ton of crap and none of it makes me feel good about giving it, then what’s the point?
The holidays will never be stress-free (because, kids), but relaxing the rules of what makes a “perfect” season might actually allow us to be in the moment, enjoy that moment, and replay it in our minds for years to come as a cherished memory. Nobody remembers what they got for Christmas when they were an eager, 9-year-old kid (well, unless you got the Barbie Dream House because who could forget that?), but they’ll remember how that day felt. I’m determined not to have stress be a part of our holiday memories.
Finding Your Own Family Traditions
One thing I’ve learned from celebrating multiple holidays is that it's absolutely exhausting to meet both sides of our family’s expectations. While it’s important for my husband and me to pass down our families’ holiday traditions (watching A Christmas Story and lighting a menorah), it’s even more meaningful for us to form our own traditions that are unique to our interfaith family. We’re still in the early stages of figuring out what this looks look, since our kids are young, but for now we host my Jewish side of the family at our house on Christmas day and Skype with the Christian side of our family who live far from us. We serve mini-tacos and coconut shrimp and this year my dad is making latkes. We fire up the Darth Vader yule log on the TV, turn on the artificial tree, and add a candle to our velcro menorah.
Merry Chrismannukah, from the Wyles family.