Friday, December 19, 2008

I've bid farewell to Christmakkuh

AlmaI'm the product of intermarriage. My Jewish mother and Methodist father met in high school in the middle of America, went to college together, married and got their PhDs. Mom was raised in the Reform tradition and Dad didn't care much for church, so it was agreed any kids would be raised Jewish.

But raising your kids Jewish as an interfaith Foreign Service family is a touch more difficult than signing up with the closest synagogue and sending your kids to Jewish summer camp. You see, I attended Hebrew school after Friday night services, which were held in a chapel on the Army base in Berlin. Our cantor took advantage of his day job at the commissary to provide for the weekly challah and ice cream oneg.

But as friendly as our miniature congregation was, I didn't know any Jewish kids my own age and I was surrounded, not just by the commercial Christmas of mall Santas and colored lights, but by the trappings of German Weihnachten,complete with crosses, creches, caroling and endless Christmas markets. I don't know if it was by my father's request or an obligation my mother felt because they did so much entertaining, but we started "doing Christmas." We ate the chocolates from the Advent calendars given to my parents as gifts, decorated a tree and my sister and I set our shoes outside our bedroom doors so our parents could fill them with treats.

I liked the pomp and circumstance and I loved the candy, but I remember feeling a little confused; why were we celebrating Christmas if we didn't believe in Christ? Like most Jews, I'd always felt other around Christmas. Now I felt like an outsider and an imposter. I had enough Midnight Mass-attending friends to know our half-hearted, secular shows of Christmas cheer weren't authentic. We mouthed "Jesus" when singing Christmas songs. We didn't wear matching velvet dresses and pose for family photos before the fireplace. We didn't have stockings embroidered with our names. Or ornaments memorializing Baby's First Christmas. We didn't have a train encircling our tree. A wreath on the door. Special seasonal plates. We were "doing Christmas," but we were doing it all wrong!

And as if being Jewish-but-with-Christmas in Germany wasn't awkward enough, imagine moving to Pakistan just as you're supposed to start preparing for your Bat Mitzvah! While living in Islamabad, we kept our Star of David necklaces tucked under our shirts and continued putting our Hanukkah presents under a Christmas tree. We even hung our socks up on the mantle for Mom to fill with tangerines, chocolate and tiny bottles of 4711. (We filled our parents' socks with hand-drawn coupons good for a backrub or "1 clean of my room, no whining.")

I didn't get the chance to reconnect with my religion until we moved back to the U.S. I was 15 when I decided I was going to be a Jew and I threw myself into Confirmation class, continuing my religious education in Post-Con study groups with the rabbi and volunteering as a camp counselor at an observant Jewish summer camp. I told my Mom I'd rather we didn't buy a Christmas tree and I guess she and Dad agreed, because we never trimmed one again. We spent Christmas Eve with my Dad's relatives and went to the movies or ice skating on Christmas. Even my Christian grandmother picked up on my new passion for Judiasm; she stopped sending me Christmas presents wrapped in Santa paper and supplemented my Chanukah presents with Rosh Hashanah and Passover cards!

Since I married a full-blooded Jew whose Christmas celebrations consisted of Chinese food and movie-going, there was no question ours would be a tree and stocking-free home each December. My 4-year-old daughter gets an earful about Santa from her preschool friends, but she understands that different families have different religions and different traditions and hers is Jewish.

Plenty of intermarried families "do it all," celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah each year, and that's fine. I grew up happy and well adjusted with a menorah next to the Christmas tree. But it bothered me because these aren't really secular holidays. A fundamental part of being Jewish is not believing the birth of Baby Jesus marks the arrival of the Messiah. So don't be surprised if your kids decide to fully identify with one religion or the other. Or if they walk away from a religious identity altogether. Because you really can't be both without cheapening each side.