To describe the confluence between Hanukkah and Christmas in interfaith families as a “December dilemma” has become a cliché. Indeed, for many families, celebrating two holidays produces fewer problems, not more. It certainly makes the decision on where to spend Christmas a lot easier. But even if there’s no capital-D dilemma, there still may be some lowercase p-pitfalls you want to avoid.
Before you can help your children navigate the potential conflicts, you need to determine how you feel about the holidays. If you are Jewish, do you have issues with Christmas trees? Are you afraid they send the wrong message to your children, or do you simply have an ingrained cultural resistance to them? If you are Christian, do you go to church on Christmas because of your beliefs, or because it’s what your family has always done?
Before making your own clarifications, you should know that research has shown that children raised with two religious traditions often end up adopting neither religion or identifying with the more socially prevalent tradition. If you want your child to grow up with a strong sense of faith, or a strong religious identity, you should choose one religion for your child. And the earlier you can make the decision, the better.
But just because you’ve chosen one religious tradition for your children doesn’t mean you have to abandon Hanukkah or Christmas. You can celebrate other holidays by being clear about what’s religious and what’s not. One good strategy is to explain celebrating another holiday as being like a friend’s birthday. You can join in the fun and celebrate, but it’s not your special day. You’re celebrating it because it’s important to someone you care about. This is a particularly effective approach if you celebrate Hanukkah at home and Christmas at Grandma’s — or vice versa.
Both holidays can comfortably co-exist in your home. If you value the holidays equally, give them equal time. That doesn’t mean having a Hanukkah bush next to your Christmas tree, but it could mean gathering the whole family for the menorah-lighting, in much the same way you gather everyone together to open presents on Christmas morning. And if you’re worried about the cost or number of gifts you’ll have to buy, don’t sweat it. Your children’s lasting memories of the holidays will be of family togetherness, not which Bratz doll they received. Don’t try to compensate for a lack of family time with excessive gifts; your children will see right through the ploy anyway.
To help your kids feel more comfortable with your family’s unique religious character, let them invite friends over for one of the holidays (assuming it’s OK with their parents). This can serve multiple purposes: It may make your child feel less alone in your family’s religious practice, and it will probably help their friends realize that your child isn’t that different. It may also open up surprisingly intelligent discussions about faith between your child and his friend, or your child and yourself.
The key to making a dual-holiday household work is adaptation. As long as your family models appropriate behavior and worship, you don’t have to go by the book on everything. Just because your parents went to Midnight Mass or lit candles at sundown all eight days of Hanukkah doesn’t mean that you have to do the same. Adapting rituals to your family’s needs can send the important message that religion is about personal meaning as well as sacrifice — a concept worth emphasizing when so many children feel dragged to church or forced to go to Hebrew school.
Remember, December is only one month of the year. Your main concern should be how your family will live religiously throughout the entire year. If you and your partner agree on how you’re raising your children the rest of the year, then giving in on one holiday really is less significant.
MICAH SACHS is managing editor of InterfaithFamily.com, a Jewish non-profit that provides resources and services for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life.