Planning for the holidays can sometimes be tricky, and the pandemic has added new challenges. The holiday season can also mean different things for different people, so with that in mind, we’re sharing an excerpt from The A-Z of Intermarriage which can help intermarried/intercultural couples and families celebrate the holiday season.
December Delights: Creating and Crushing Chrismukkah
Light (Decorations, Family Traditions, Gifts)
It’s no accident that we have so many cultural celebrations of light at this time of year: Diwali, Solstice, Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. We need light on these cold, dark days. (If you are reading this somewhere that is not cold and dark, congratulations. And, know that I say this with love, be quiet about it. I live in Canada. But I bet you could use some light too, so read on.)
Fun fact: December 25th was most decidedly, historically speaking, not the birthday of Jesus. Fun fact: Early rabbis hated the practice of celebrating Chanukah and tried to stop it. Guess what? The people decided. We need good times, good food, good light. We need them now.
I’ve heard it all when it comes to how we bring light into our homes. There is, of course, the metaphorical light that comes with celebration. There’s lots of that in this guide. But first let’s address literal light. Here are some options:
- Putting lights up on or around the home.
- Lighting menorah candles and placing the menorah in the window.
- Having a Christmas tree (or Chanukah bush) and putting lights on that.
- Having disco lights and a disco ball and hosting a dance party. Look, that one’s not traditional, but let’s think outside the box a little.
Notice that most of the traditional options are two-directional: They bring light into the home to enliven and enlighten the people who live inside. They also are markers of identity – Christmas lights on the house signify to lots of people that this is a Christmas-celebrating home. Menorahs in the window are a declaration that Jews live inside.
In my experience, it’s not so much the inside stuff that causes problems, but the outside stuff used to announce your identity and who you are. I’m thinking this is related to the way most of us grew up being told that intermarriage was wrong. Might we have internalized some sense of guilt or embarrassment? Might we be nervous to publicly declare something?
For me, I have a real thing about putting Christmas lights up. My partner insists that they don’t have to be “Christmas lights” but just lights. But I don’t buy it. (If you buy it, that’s totally great. My way won’t and shouldn’t be your way!) To me, lights on the outside of the house is marking the house as Christian, and I feel weird about it.
Some people do blue and white lights. This is saying: “Hey, okay, we’re doing the Christmas thing but also we’re doing the Jewish thing.” If that works, wonderful.
Similarly with Christmas tree/Chanukah bush lights, some people do blue and white, or all white, or any configuration basically that isn’t red and green. How did Christmas co-opt all things red and green forever? I don’t know … but it’s a fact. Red and green signifies Christmas, and blue and white signifies something Jewish. We can create a rainbow of lights for our homes if we choose. That works for lots of us.
Some people are not comfortable putting a menorah in the window for fear of antisemitism. And some people put the menorah in the window precisely to normalize that Jews are around in the neighborhood. We all need to figure out what works for us in terms of this internal/external lights dynamic.
In my own marriage, I’ve come a long way on the lights front. I used to be pretty hardline about it. I wasn’t comfortable with lights. But then I had to ask myself why I wasn’t comfortable and, to me, it was about wanting to mark myself and my home as a Jewish space. However, my marriage (sadly) isn’t all about me and sometimes I have to accommodate the needs and wishes of my partner. For him, lights are joyful.
I’m open to lights on the house (preferably blue and white). We also have colorful lights up all year in our basement to de-Christmasify the meaning of them in our house. Chanukah is a festival of lights so you’d think this would be less weird for me. But, still, I don’t love having lights up. Still further, it’s an area in which I’m willing to compromise. For more on compromise and consideration, read on.
In our house we also do the menorah lighting for all eight nights of Chanukah. This means that for eight nights we have light, which increases with each night we light candles. We also make special dedications on each candle (we do a blessing but we also do a wish/intention for each candle). Along with the lighting we do singing, dancing, competitive dreidel playing, and more. The candles not only give light in themselves but they foster a lightness of spirit.
For many families, saying a secular blessing helps make the lighting inclusive. In my branch of Judaism we use ones like Baruch ha’or Ba’Olam, Baruch ha’or Ba’adam, Baruch ha’or Ba’Chanukah (Blessed is the light of the world, blessed is the light of humanity, blessed is the light of Chanukah). It helps bring meaning to the lighting – for everyone in the family – if you believe and understand the words you are saying.
The Christmas tree/Chanukah bush is another area of contention for lots of couples and families. Consider that this is the time of year for inviting light into your home. Is fighting over the tree worth it? For some it is. Some people are uncomfortable with the tree because it is a true symbol of incorporating another tradition into the home, and for lots of us it was the symbol that made us feel “other.” I still feel like it’s weird that there are Christmas trees in public schools. On the other hand, I know many (many!) Jews who are ecstatic to finally have the presence of a beautiful, fresh-smelling, present-laden tree in their homes. I mean, it’s pretty great. The first time I had one was when I lived with a good friend of mine. One night we made popcorn strings for the tree while making a gingerbread house and watching the fine film Elf. Hard to beat. Trees add brightness and a sense of lightness to the home. You absolutely don’t have to have one. If you do have one, make it yours.
Cultural traditions are complicated. There is nothing contrary to Judaism about any tree-related traditions. There’s no prohibition on bringing living plants into the home or creating lovely popcorn strings for them. There’s nothing contrary to Jewish law in watching Elf (unless it’s Shabbat, but most of us watch movies on Shabbat anyway). It’s just that we grew up with the sense that it was somehow anti-Jewish to do Christmas; that we’d be a “bad Jew” if we participated. I have a real bee in my bonnet about the whole “bad Jew” narrative, anyway. It isn’t about following rules and practices for their own sake. The rules and practices are designed to make you a good person. I’m not sure abstaining from Christmas makes you a better person.
So, focus on the values. Come back to the value of light. Why do the Christmas tree? Why do the menorah lighting? Figure out what it means to and for you and your partner. Start there.
Or start here with this exercise (there are four exercises in this guide to help you work through the holidays).
Write down what traditions you really value about your holiday this time of year. After writing them all out, give each of them a rating of importance from 1 to 10. Maybe having a tree is a 10 but giving presents is a 5. Maybe having menorah lighting is a 9 but eating sufganiyot (jelly-filled donuts that Sephardic Jews traditionally eat) is a 5. Maybe watching Elf is an 8. Maybe playing dreidel is a 3. Whatever your things are, write them down and assign each one a numeric value.
Switch lists with your partner. Look at it and see what they care about. Be honest with yourself about whether there is anything they’ve ranked as very important (say a 7 or higher) that you object to. Write down any that you feel you actually can’t live with.
Discuss. Sometimes someone has to compromise. Sometimes you can trade: We’ll do lights on the house if we can give Chanukah presents only. Sometimes you’ll find that you’re okay with everything that matters to your partner. Sometimes you’re okay to do things at the in-laws’ home or in a community context. Sometimes, if you’re honest, you’re excited to incorporate this tradition you didn’t have growing up. See how it goes.
When there are sticking points, truly listen to your partner and what they want. Remember, marriage sometimes means doing something you wouldn’t have expected. Try to map out the lights, decorations, and presents stuff in a way that works for everyone.
Come back to the values. For each tradition, articulate why it matters. This will make it so much more meaningful for you and help your partner get why it’s a big deal. Working from the values, you can come
out with a plan. Some examples:
- If we value increasing light, we’ll do menorah and home lights.
- If we value the nostalgia and warm feelings of family traditions, we’ll do some of mine, some of yours, and create new ones for our own family.
- If we value peace and justice, we’ll spend time talking about those things at our celebrations and try to find community programs to help out at (maybe a holiday dinner for the homeless; maybe a toy drive for kids in foster care).
- If we value giving, we’ll do presents for both holidays. What kind? How many?
Working from the values really will help make this the best December ever. Not only will you do all the things but you’ll know why you are doing them (and so will your kids, if applicable). You also might let go of some things you used to do if you find they’re no longer meaningful.
I used to give and get a lot of Chanukah gifts. I’ve decided I don’t want the focus to be the presents. Now I’d rather we give to tzedakah (charity) than give elaborate gifts to each other. And while we’re on the subject of gifts, examine some of the narratives around this time of year and if they are in line with your values. It makes me bananas when people use gifts to try to control the behavior of their children … saying stuff like “good kids get presents from Santa.” Not only does this leave non-Christmas-celebrating folks with some explaining to do, but it also sends weird messages about the point of presents.
Enter the Elf on the Shelf, the make-believe spy we put on mantles for surveillance and control (the kids think they have built-in cameras, but they don’t). Jews responded with our own Jewish super spy to try to manage our sugar-high children: the Mensch on a Bench. Honestly, it’s cute. But it’s still contrary to my values. How about yours? The holidays are a reflection and expression of values. Start there.
Click here to read the full excerpt from The A-Z of Intermarriage.
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