It happens every year. Interfaith families face the “the December dilemma” over how they will handle Christmas and Hanukkah, which generally fall within the same month. It has become a common issue in a world in which 50 percent of American Jews are married to people who are not Jewish, and who are, most often, Christian, or of Christian heritage. This year, Hanukkah begins on Christmas Eve, making the negotiation of these holidays potentially more complex. Many interfaith couples and families will try to decide how to include or exclude two traditions worth of memories, stories, theologies, rituals, and recipes. Like the holidays themselves, the solutions that couples have found have continued to evolve over time.
In 2003, this overlap got a new name: “Chrismukkah” was coined by the character Seth Cohen on the hit Fox television show “The OC.” The son of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, Cohen defined Chrismukkah as “eight days of presents and then one day of lots of presents.” It was a time to combine both holidays, at least commercially. They had a tree but ordered Chinese food. After the show aired, a Chrismukkah-themed website and cookbook popped up. TIME magazine made “Chrismukkah” a buzzword of the year. And though the portmanteau lives on in popular culture, the “merry mishmash,” as one savvy promoter called it, remains largely the territory of those who might identify as “religious nones,” and who celebrate cultural milestones with tongue-in-cheek irony.
But outside television, more often than not, families who negotiate both traditions have strived to keep the two celebrations separate and distinct.
These families are largely trying to avoid accusations of creating a third, syncretic tradition. Instead they navigate two traditions that are both very much a product of American culture rather than immutable religious constants. The commercial and domestic Christmas extravaganza that we know today took form between 1830 and 1880, fueled as much by the Industrial Revolution and capitalism as it was by religious sentiment. Likewise, Americans took Hanukkah, a relatively minor event on the Jewish calendar, and raised its profile. There are now Hanukkah gifts, cards, and special foods. It is possible to decorate front yards with giant inflatable menorahs. Sometimes derided as inauthentic and assimilationist, these Hanukkah practices nevertheless became a way for American Jews to participate in seasonal festivities all their own.
Keeping the holidays separate was also once a mandate for many observant American Jews and Christians. Starting in the 1970s, when American interfaith marriage rates first began to rise, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders encouraged couples to choose one religion for their home. In practice, this often boiled down to two basic requirements: that the children be educated in one religious tradition and that the family celebrate one set of religious holidays. These requirements fell most heavily on families who chose to affiliate with Judaism.
Though the 1970s and 1980s, many rabbis would not perform interfaith marriages at all; those who did stipulated that the couple maintain a Jewish home. The catch was that the bulk of the rabbis who performed interfaith weddings were affiliated with the Reform movement, and most Reform households did not necessarily practice many Jewish observances, including keeping the Sabbath, lighting Sabbath candles, keeping Kosher, or observing more than a few Jewish holidays. Without distinctively Jewish practice, what most marked a Reform Jewish home was the absence of Christian observance, even in its most secular forms. In short, when rabbis were asking a couple to keep a Jewish home, they were essentially asking them to give up Christmas. The concern was that growing up with a Christmas tree in the home could make the children feel Christian—or at least like Christmas-celebrating American cultural Christians.
Many Jewish leaders understood that Christmas can be a time of cultural alienation for some American Jews—a time when the entire culture, with the Santas at the mall and the carols piped into the grocery stores, seems to remind Jews that they are not “real” Americans. Asking a Jewish spouse to have the trappings of Christmas in his or her home could therefore be one step too many. Avoiding Christmas and observing Hanukkah was one way to assert an American Jewish identity in the middle of the most Christian-centric month of the year. And American Hanukkah celebrations are, after all, a reflection of the culture that is currently shaping them.
Then as now, many interfaith couples agreed not to celebrate Christmas in their homes. Some did not observe the holiday at all, while others joined Christian (or Christmas-observing) family members for their celebrations. In this way, the Christian spouse could celebrate Christmas and the Christian grandparents could enjoy the company of their grandchildren, without challenging the Jewishishness of the home. Advice manuals suggested that parents underscore the distinction between celebrating a holiday one’s self and sharing in loved ones’ celebrations. In her 1993 book If I am Jewish and You are Christian, Then What Are the Kids, Andrea King creates a composite family who chose Judaism as the sole religion in their household. One of the children says:
I like Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa’s house … They have a Christmas tree, and we get presents, and Mom takes presents for everyone, even though it is not our holiday.
The child understands that he helps part of his family celebrate the holiday, “even if it is not ours.” The argument was that children could understand that, while they did not celebrate Christmas because they were Jewish, they could join their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins and help them celebrate their holiday. Families who chose to affiliate with Jewish communities also found that Jewish leaders discouraged Christmas practices. As one mother reported to me, her family intended to formally raise the children as Jews, but they continued to celebrate Christmas at home until a Hebrew School teacher objected, explaining that it would confuse the children to have a Christmas tree at home.
Over time the hard line against Christmas celebrations began to soften, for a variety of reasons. In part, this flexibility comes from a numbers game. Like many other religious communities, liberal synagogues find themselves struggling to attract members and many are increasingly reluctant to put up barriers to membership. At the same time, attitudes have genuinely shifted. As one employee of the Jewish Federation of New York told me, “I think we are coming to realize that we should honor the traditions of non-Jewish parents who agree to raise Jewish children, saying that we understand that they also have rich heritages.” An Atlanta rabbi noted that his own position has changed over his career. “Early on, I really found the tree threatening, but now I think it is important that a Jewish spouse acknowledge that their Christian spouse is doing a lot to support Judaism in their home, and that support should be reciprocal. Sometimes support might look like a Christmas tree.”
Today, while many Jewish-identified interfaith families still avoid Christmas (and many congregations expect them to), others have found ways to include Christmas in their family lives. In these families, children attend Jewish religious schools and observe Jewish life-cycle events, and because they have a robust Jewish life, participating in the Christmas season does not seem to detract from the children’s Jewish identity. “I think that if a family has a weekly Shabbat practice and really engaged Jewish life, then putting up a tree for three weeks can’t threaten the life being lived for 52 weeks of the year,” said another Atlanta rabbi in an interview. These families point out that the Christian parent, who has generously agreed to raise the children in a “religion not his or her own,” should be able to share family traditions with those children. Jesus is often absent from these celebrations—the holiday is an American cultural Christmas, sometimes with whimsical juxtapositions. During my fieldwork, I visited one home with a Star of David Christmas tree topper and another where stockings always included both dreidels and Hanukkah gelt.
There is also now a small, but growing trend of intentionally dual-religion homes. These families sometimes do this independently, but in large cities may be part of likeminded communities such as the Interfaith Family Project in suburban Washington, DC; the Interfaith Community, which has branches in and around New York City; and the Interfaith Union in Chicago. In these communities, the intention is to raise children who are educated and conversant in the narratives and practices of both Christianity and Judaism. As a result, they celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, Easter and Passover. Individual families make different choices about Christmas consumption and volunteering, but they make a point of including the stories of both traditions in their celebrations.
Generally speaking, these dual-religion families are intentional about including more than the consumerist aspects of the American holidays. Children know the story of Hanukkah, and its relatively minor status in the panoply of Jewish holidays. They know the blessings over the Hanukkah candles and enjoy good sufiganyot, or jelly doughnuts, just as the exclusively Jewish kids do. Similarly, rather than keeping Christ out of Christmas, these families make sure that their children know the story from the Gospel of Luke. They talk about Jesus as someone whom some in their community consider a savior. For these families, celebrating Christmas is part of a larger effort to practice both Judaism and Christianity “religiously,” outside of the now secularized and commercialized holiday season.
These three kinds of families—the Jewishly affiliated family, who keeps Christmas out of their own homes but celebrates with family; the Jewishly affiliated family who celebrates some aspects of Christmas at home; and the dual-religion interfaith family—have an important characteristic in common: for all the cultural fuss about the blended (and invented) “holiday” of Chrismukkah, these families are careful to keep their holidays separate. They might light a menorah in the shadow of a Christmas tree, but the holidays are not blended into a third set of practices.
For these interfaith families, this year poses a particular set of challenges because Hanukkah starts on Christmas Eve. As a result, it is not simply a matter of celebrating Hanukkah in a house decorated for Christmas. Rather, the families have to find ways of keeping Hanukkah from being dwarfed by the opulence of Christmas while also keeping the traditions distinct. The logistical challenges are such that interfaith family advocate Susan Katz Miller wrote a series of recommendations for families who hope to keep their celebrations separate. She suggests that on Christmas, the family “lean into Christmas,” postponing Hanukkah gifts for later in the holiday. Leaning into Christmas, however, does not mean ignoring Hanukkah. “If you are traveling, remember to pack the Hanukkah menorah,” she writes. “In the excitement of Christmas Eve, don’t forget to set aside a few minutes to gather everyone and actually light the first candle. Enjoy the synergy of a glowing Hanukkah menorah and a sparkling tree, and talk about the common theme of light at the darkest time of year.” Here, Miller highlights common themes between the two holidays—light in a time of darkness.
For the contemporary interfaith family, the options for negotiating the “December dilemma” have proliferated. The dilemma is no longer a matter of trying to sort the acceptable from the unacceptable options. Rather, it’s a choice among the many practices available. This year, Hanukkah and Christmas may be together again, but their distinct celebrations can be as varied as the many families who observe them.
Samira Mehta is an assistant professor of religious studies at Albright College and a David B. Larson Fellow in Health and Spirituality at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center. Her book, Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States, is forthcoming in 2018.