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?
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.