Navigating the December Dilemma

Nothing stirs up feelings quite like the winter holiday season. Celebrations that should be joyful can become a source of conflict. Someone recently reflected to me, “I get anxious just thinking about it. The Christmas tree in the living room was a source of tension instead of joy. We were both angry.” She asked, “Rabbi, what should we do?”

This question is not new. A significant number of people in our community grew up religiously or culturally in another faith and married Jews. Thank God for our community’s non-Jewish parents, who proudly make costumes for purim, cook for and participate in the Passover seder, braid challah and make Shabbat, shape matzah balls, worship and pray, light the candles and make latkes for Chanukah, and so much more.

Yet, December can be a tough month for Jewish families in a world flooded with Christmas decorations and advertisements. This will be especially true this year, as Chanukah and Christmas overlap. Holidays evoke memories. Deciding how to celebrate and communicate during this season is essential.  Here are some tips for this season.

Detoxify the issue and focus on feelings.  Approach the conversation with inquiry and humor.  Laughing about something does not diminish the importance. Try looking at your partner’s side for a new perspective. Try statements like, “I’m worried that my parents won’t come to visit if they know there’s a Christmas tree here,” or “I feel like I can’t be part of something that was very precious to me.”

Acknowledge feelings of loss. If the feelings of loss remain off limits, tensions can mount to anger, disappointment, jealousy and sadness. Even when we make conscious, rational choices about holiday celebrations, there may be sad feelings related to compromise. Often the acknowledgement of these emotions will shift the focus from loss to hope and partnership.

Childhood memories are a part us. Our past remains with us, no matter what religious choices we may make as adults. The holiday season is a time when we are often drawn back to our families, and it may be especially important to help one another find ways to share the current season with relatives and friends.

Be courageous to make adult decisions. Celebrating two sets of holidays in one house may seem like the best compromise, but it may also confuse children and complicate their sense of identity. Leaving the choice of religion up to children when they are old enough can translate to them feeling that they are choosing one parent over the other. That’s an unfair choice for any child to make. This does not mean that your family cannot join in the joyous celebrations of extended family.

Consider an “Anthropological Christmas.” Many families have successfully managed the December Dilemma by observing Jewish holidays in their own home while sharing Christmas at the home of a family member. Children will not be confused if they understand that they live in a Jewish home and are helping their non-Jewish relatives celebrate holidays in their home.

Build Jewish identity throughout the year. Coping with Christmas is easiest when there is a firm Jewish identity supported by a year of holiday celebrations.  If you observe Shabbat regularly, sing Jewish songs, read Jewish books, enjoy Passover seders, decorate a sukkah and celebrate Purim with costumes, carnivals, and hamentashen, the few weeks of the holiday season will feel less challenging.

Feeling like an outsider can be tough for kids. The prevailing culture in Charlotte is decidedly Christian. Learning that you are an outsider is never easy. For a child it can be doubly hard. Christmas-envy is not a religious issue. Kids want the flashing lights, the candy, and, most of all, the toys. Jewish children react in different ways: jealousy, sadness, outrage. Little children may cry. School-age kids, obsessed with the idea of “fairness,” sometimes express anger. Don’t talk kids out of their feelings. Listen and sympathize. Explain how you handle your feelings about the holiday. Chanukah is an excellent time for reinforcing a sense of identity with Jewish life and history. Well defined identities lead to a healthy sense of self, a greater ability to relate to others, and becoming a proud member of a religious minority.

Celebrate.  Join us for Temple Beth El’s Chanukah Shabbat Service and Dinner on December 27, as well as many other special Chanukah events all week. And most importantly, celebrate in your home! Our discovered traditions gift-shop can help you experience a beautiful holiday. Visit www.templebethel.org for more information.

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