Sunday, December 23, 2007

December Diversity, Not December Dilemma

Ah, the wonderful month of December!

Winter has begun in earnest, with snowstorms, days to snuggle in front of the fire, and time off to spend with family.

And the inevitable questions.
"What are your plans for Christmas?"

And every year, the synagogue puts on a program for the kids about the December Dilemma, which is the current catch-phrase for how to deal with Jewish identity when the whole world around you is going crazy with Christmas.

Years ago, after attending a few of these programs, MLC, now 22, asked us if she could opt out. She said that she didn't feel any sense of dilemma at all in December.

Oh, we had read the requisite Jewish kid's book for the season, There's No Such Thing as a Hannukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein! We dealt with an unauthorized public school visit to Santa Claus disguised as a field trip to the Children's Museum, and we had THE DISCUSSION with teachers about the "C" holiday.

But overall, we decided to adopt a reasonable view of the season. After all, one simply cannot pretend that nothing is happening as most of the world celebrates a major holiday on December 25th. So, as a non-participating family, we decided on two policies about Christmas.

First, we decided to emphasize our Jewish identity all year 'round. For us, this meant living the Jewish calendar as well as living in the secular calendar. We celebrate all of the Jewish holidays with special meals, rituals and customs. Both of the kids have experienced the rich and varied round of the Jewish year, complete with observance of Shabbat every week. We decorate with colored lights--at Sukkot. We bring greenery into the house--at Shavuot. The kids grew up in a Jewish home, repleat with Jewish ritual and custom and traditions.

Perhaps this is why, when I suggested to our rabbi that perhaps the "December Dilemma" programming in the synagogue every year was maybe just a teensy bit overdone, he replied:
"MLC is growing up in a Jewish home and has the richness of numerous Jewish experiences. That is why she does not feel particularly deprived in December. Unfortunately, that is not true for the majority of the kids in our religious school." And he excused her from the program from that point on.

Our second strategy was to educate our kids about the Christmas holiday on an "as needed" basis. We answered questions and we indulged their natural curiosity without defensiveness.
Why be defensive when our kids weren't being deprived?

Sometimes, this meant giving the kids clear rules like, "I know we don't believe in Santa Claus, but it is very rude and unkind to tell other little children that he doesn't exist."

At other times, this meant allowing the children to bake Christmas cookies with their friends, or help decorate a Christmas tree. We also invited their friends to participate in some of our celebrations, such as lighting the Hannukah menorah, eating the Seder, or having havdalah with us. In this way, we emphasized the richness of the human experience, by teaching our kids to respect and appreciate that everyone has holy days, holidays, and ways of marking the passing of the seasons.

We have also enjoyed some of the unique aspects of the Christmas holiday as it is celebrated here in New Mexico. We go down to Old Town on the evening of December 24, to see the luminarias that line the sidewalks. We have taken the kids to Barelas to enjoy Las Posadas, the nine days of processions of Mary and Joseph that are part of the New Mexican and Spanish religious observance of Christmas. Through these activities, we want our children to understand that Christmas is not a secular buying frenzy, but a religious celebration for Christians. It is not our holiday, but it is somebody's holy day, and although it is not right for us to co-opt it for our own ends, neither should it offend us that people are celebrating it.

Our bottom line: It is important for us to observe our own holidays and maintain our Jewish identity. We do not celebrate Christmas just because "everybody is doing it." At the same time, if we are strong in our own identity then we can appreciate and enjoy the celebrations by others. It will not be offensive to us that Old Town is filled with luminarias, that wreaths decorate ABQ Uptown, and that Maria and Jose travel the streets of Barelas. The world would be so much poorer if there were no differences between us.

For us, then, December is a time to enjoy the snow, to walk the dogs, to celebrate Hannukah. And it is also a time to appreciate time off to be with each other because much of the rest of the country is celebrating a major holiday.

I think that our choices were good ones for strengthening our own children's Jewish identities and for teaching them to appreciate the color, the richness, and the fun of living in a world in which people have amazing differences.

We don't experience a December Dilemma. We experience the joy, light and color that come from many different traditions here in the southwest. And we are richer for enjoying the diverse ways people celebrate the turning of the seasons.


Frankie said...

Yet another beautiful post.

I was actually thinking of you last night, as I was baking some last-minute Christmas cookies, wondering how you dealt with the Christmas frenzy. Your post matched my conclusions. =)

I appreciate your blog so much because I have learned so much about your faith that I just didn't know.

Enjoy your week together, enjoy the snow, and enjoy your journey out tonight.

momof3feistykids said...

I love the way you are living your faith and enjoying all the cultural and spiritual richness of living in a society with various beliefs and traditions. Great post! :-)

steph said...

Incredibly sensible! I enjoy learning more about the Jewish faith when I come here and hope I can do similar for my kids as you've done for yours.

By the way, we sold the house! It doesn't close until the end of January, but she came with and offer AND a check, so I think she's serious. She has no house to sell of her own, but I think there are holiday trips, etc, that are causing them to delay the closing. I will put up a link soon to the house--we are relieved more than anything, but sad to let it go. It is a wonderful little gem of a "cabin" in the woods.

Have a wonderful December and I'm very glad it's not a dilemma for you and your family! There is so much to celebrate in life that we have in common that arguing or getting over the differences is just a drain on personal energy. Thanks for a wonderful post (and if you have any resources for us to learn about your faith, that would be great, too!)

steph said...

"getting defensive" is what I meant at the end there after "getting". Had to go rescue a child mid-thought!

Melora said...

Your approach seems so sensible. You are bringing your children up in a religion rich with tradition and celebration, so I can't see that they'd feel much dilemma. I sort of think that it is too bad that your rabbi didn't take the approach of encouraging the other families in your synagogue to celebrate the Jewish holidays and customs as you do, rather than taking a defensive approach. (I can certainly see how the ubiquitousness of Christmas could get to be a bit much if you don't celebrate it, though.)

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, everyone, and thanks for the comments!
Frankie, I really like the recipes that people post this time of year, so if you have a good cookie recipe to share...

Momof3, you said in one sentence what it took me a whole post to say! I think that's the key for all of us. The point is not to make everyone alike, or be defensive when others celebrate their lives differently. It is to enjoy the richness.

Steph, I posted a comment about your house over at your blog. And congratulations, again, on the impending sale. Enjoy child-rescuing in mid-thought as much as you can--they grow up so quickly. My baby boy will be 14 on Friday. Oy!

Melora: Oh, our rabbi nudges and nudges to get people more Jewishly involved. But many families in the intermountain west are intermarried, and some parents respond by raising their kids in both traditions. I ought to post on why this can be a problem, sometime. Also, sometimes even the most well-meaning grandparents get into competition with each other on which holiday is better. All of this leads to identity problems for the kids despite the best intentions of the adults. The synagogue programs are meant to try to help with these issues.
You are right, the ubiquity of Christmas that gets in the way of Christians who are trying to preserve the sense of holiness for the day, also can be overwhelming for those of us who do not celebrate it. And I think it is even more of a problem for Jewishchildren when parents don't help them solidify a Jewish identity based on positives.

Swylv said...

Just wanted to chime in as a Yeshua Messiah believer and follower that does not equate 12/25 with HIS birthday or any HOLY significance whatsoever.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


I believe the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, either. In fact, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they outlawed the celebration of the holiday. However, the holiday was celebrated English style, with some American innovations in the Virginia colony and the middle Atlantic colonies. From the history that I have read, the New England style of Christmas celebration comes from the Unitarians--with an emphasis on family, and the Christmas tree comes from German traditions brought to Pennsylvania and the midwest. So the American holiday, like so many American customs came from many different influences. Here in the southwest, Christmas seems to be a blend of American and Spanish and Mexican customs. The Native Americans have blended the Christian Christmas with their own traditions, and made it a feast day with Kachina dances. I once got up at 3 AM to be at Taos Pueblo before dawn to watch the Christmas Feast Day dances.

People seem to find ways to bring their old culture into their new beliefs.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that it sounds like your version of Christianity has a historical connection to the Puritan tradition.

christinemm said...

Your post was very interesting.

Since I grew up in a Godless home in which we celebrated "Christmas" minus Christ and minus religion of any kind, I never felt "left out" of what the culture was doing.

For us it was more about gifts, eating, and a reason to have a week off of school for "Christmas vacation". And listening to Christmas music most of which I was clueless about or "didn't get" as I wasn't Christian, but I still liked the songs anyway.

We also live in an area with a good amount of Jewish people, I went to school with Jewish kids. I am just sharing that because it is not like I was/am in an area devoid of Jewish people where everyone is Christian.

To be quite honest I think for many people celebrating Christmas has nothing to do with Christ or being Christian.