For parents of different faiths, December often brings holiday challenges. For divorced parents with joint custody, these challenges can be amplified.
Before we married, my ex-husband and I decided we would have a Jewish home. He grew up in a secular family who celebrated Christmas with no religious significance, so we decided we'd spend Christmas with his parents but would not observe it ourselves. He agreed -- but he really wanted a Christmas tree, the seasonal decoration that reminded him of his favorite childhood memories.
Though I knew some Jews who had Christmas trees in their homes, this was not the tradition in my family. In fact, I was raised with the precept that it was inappropriate to have a Christmas tree in a Jewish home. I didn't feel jealous of my friends who had a tree, but I did enjoy the tradition, helping my friend Andrea and her family decorate their tree and sipping hot cocoa next to a cozy fireplace with the smell of fresh pine in the air.
But when we were getting married and thinking of starting a family, I couldn't reconcile my need to assert my Jewish identity with the idea of having anything remotely Christian in my home. I stubbornly insisted there be no tree, and he reluctantly gave up, embracing the traditions of candlelight and latkes instead.
Now that we're divorced, our son spends four nights a week with me and three nights with his dad. He attends a Jewish pre-school, where he learns all about Jewish holidays and traditions -- and, in keeping with our pre-marital agreement, spends Christmas with his father and grandparents. Since our separation, my ex-husband has resumed the tradition of having a Christmas tree in his home. However, he has also been dedicated to observing Hanukkah, putting up equal amounts of blue and silver stars as he does red and green holly. He even lights a menorah with our son whenever they're together on Hanukkah; this year, the three of us lit candles to commemorate the first night.
While I appreciate the equity with which my ex-husband observes the holidays, I worry that our son will become confused about his religious identity. Recent conversations with him have magnified these concerns:
"Mommy, why don't you have a Christmas tree like Daddy?"
"Because I'm Jewish and Daddy's not. I celebrate Hanukkah, and Daddy celebrates Christmas."
"But Daddy celebrates Hanukkah, too."
How can I explain why his father celebrates both holidays but his mother doesn't? I expressed to my ex-husband my concern with how we've been discussing the holidays and my desire to be unified in our approach. I told him I feel uncomfortable saying he is "Christian" because he's not, really -- and I don't want to define him as "not Jewish" because it's odd to define someone by what they aren't rather than what they are. He responded thoughtfully that these discussions should be centered around diversity, suggesting that we should say:
"There are all different kinds of people in the world, who have different beliefs and celebrate different things, and that's what makes the world so interesting... and everybody has a right to believe in what they want, as long as they don't hurt anyone else."
I liked this answer, which was keeping with the values I hoped we were instilling in our son.
He continued, "We could explain that you don't have to be Jewish to celebrate Hanukkah, and you don't have to be Christian to celebrate Christmas. If a friend or family member observes any holiday, it's nice to help them celebrate." He compared this to helping someone celebrate their birthday, even if it's not your own -- an idea I knew would make sense to our almost-4-year-old son.
Our conversation made me doubt my previous stance. Had my thinking been too tribal? After all, the origins of the Christmas tree are neither Jewish nor Christian, per se, but an amalgam of traditions translated across centuries. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, "The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews."
Why couldn't we, as he suggested, simply commemorate one another's rituals? And if my Hebrew ancestors had beautiful evergreen trees in their homes, why couldn't we? Though I had hoped to have a singularly Jewish home and family, the reality has played out differently, as is the case for so many families in this diverse landscape of modern life. My ex-husband's approach is idealistic at its core -- to live in a world where we can all maintain our individual beliefs and traditions while celebrating our differences.
But can we celebrate our differences without diluting the traditions we hold dear? This is the question most interfaith families face, especially in December. I have started to think that observing a secular Christmas will not diminish a lifetime of Jewish education and rituals. The most vital thing to me is that my son values his Jewish identity while respecting others' traditions. Maybe decorating a tree at his dad's house won't take that away from him, after all.