22 Dec Chrismakkuh
The smell of a real Christmas tree is one of my favourite smells in the whole world (alongside fresh cut grass, freshly laundered clothes and of course the top of my baby’s head). But for my husband the smell of the Christmas tree stimulates no sentimental childhood memories, because Christmas trees were not a feature of his childhood. His Christmases were just as fun and exciting as mine but they were spent walking with a gang of family and friends in the Peak District. While I was eating my traditional turkey roast, they were having a picnic on the side of a hill top. And this is why, I am Roman Catholic and my husband is Jewish.
When we got together 16 years ago and started discussing religion, children etc. I agreed that I was more than happy to raise our children Jewish. I was in no way religious and having grown up in a largely non-religious environment I had no sentimental attachment to Catholicism. But I had one condition – Christmas was non-negotiable. While I was not religious, Christmas was always a magical time growing up and an important family tradition, especially as we all got older and getting us all together in one place at one time was harder than herding frogs. So, I was clear, we can raise the children Jewish but we must celebrate Christmas.
The Christmas tree was a crucial part of this.
While I was happy to tone down the decorations there had to be a tree covered in twinkling lights and multi-coloured baubles. For me it is the part of the essence of Christmas. My husband felt uncomfortable with a tree initially so we agreed that his involvement would be limited to cutting it up and putting it out for the recyclers once Christmas was over. This did result in a fair few years of me single-handedly dragging a much too big tree around North London on my own (I know, I could have got a smaller one or even invested in a synthetic one, but it was my one bit of Christmas so I was going to do it properly – go big or go home). To be fair to my husband he usually ends up helping me, and there were a few years when I was ill and he came with me to help get the tree home (believe me this is no small ask, I am one of those awful people who needs to see every tree, check it is full enough, evenly distributed and a good shape – I know, painful!). My husband is a good guy.
Now the children come tree shopping with me, and I love it. They are as invested in it as I am. In the past when my husband has accompanied me he has tried to be enthusiastic, but really he is doing it because he knows it is important to me, not because he cares about it personally (and frankly, as I said, tree shopping with me would stretch the patience of Father Christmas himself). Whereas for our children the Christmas tree has the same magical effect as for me. Our first year living together I did attempt to bridge the Christian-Jewish gap over the tree by suggesting we put a Star of David on top, but that apparently is not a good idea. Say no more.
I love that our children are exposed to different traditions.
We are lucky to have a warm and welcoming family who fundamentally believe in the same principles, being kind and respectful to others, oh and food (big in both Catholic Irish families and Jewish families). The mixed faith thing, however, inevitably raises questions for our children. Particularly at this time of year. And these questions are getting trickier as our children get older.
They already understand that while I am Catholic, they and their father are Jewish. For our three year old this provokes concern for me, that I may be sad because I am not the same religion as them. This, however, creates the perfect scenario for explaining that everyone is different and that it would be a very boring world if everyone was the same. My daughter is thankfully already at the age where she understands that being different can be a good thing, and interesting.
Obviously there are the theological questions.
How do you explain to a three year old practicing his nativity play that he is not supposed to believe in the baby Jesus?! Theology and a three year old – not a good mix. But what I fear more at the moment are the questions about Father Christmas. I want my children to believe in the fantasy for as long as possible. I remember very clearly the moment I found out that he was not real (I was eight and a half). Christmas after that was just not the same. But inevitably they will start wondering why Father Christmas only gives presents to Christian children. And if that is the case, why does he give them presents when they are Jewish? And I am sure they will find more awkward questions to ask – in the way that only children can.
For now we have found a good balance (we feel) between Christmas and Chanukah. Both get equal weighting and we use both as an opportunity to get our family together. We have devised a system to avoid the presents becoming ridiculous – they get one present for Chanukah and a stocking full of little bits and bobs from Father Christmas. A huge perk of a mixed faith marriage at Christmas is the absence of any debates over whose parents we go to each year. The children get excited about lighting their Chanukiah each night and finding the little chocolate coin in their children’s Chanukiot (kind of like a Chanukah advent calendar, with little pockets for chocolate coins or little gifts for each night of Chanukah – see picture).
By and large it works well for us. And when the tricky questions start coming we will hand over to the grandparents!