A Holiday Medley, Off Key - New York Times
By JULIE SCELFO
Published: December 6, 2007
WHEN her sons were toddlers, Amy Manata, a Jewish woman with a Catholic husband, began conducting a silent war. In the months leading up to Hanukkah, she would ask the boys, now 4 and 6, which toys they wanted most, then bestow them at Hanukkah to ensure that it was a better holiday than Christmas.
She and her husband, Frank, who live in Skokie, Ill., are raising their sons with both Catholic and Jewish traditions. Still, with so much Christmas everywhere, “Hanukkah was sort of getting lost, and I felt like I couldn’t compete,” she said.
Ms. Manata willingly put up Christmas decorations, but she sometimes felt weird about the wreath on her front door and the tree in her living room. “Skokie was very Jewish when I was growing up,” she said. “I wasn’t in a house with Christmas lights until I was a sophomore in high school, and I remember feeling so uncomfortable about it, like it was a totally foreign place.” Years later, a tree in her own living room brought back some of those feelings.
It is a familiar problem, widely known as the December dilemma: the annual conflict faced by millions of adults in interfaith marriages over how to decorate homes, how and when to give gifts, and which rituals to celebrate.
As of 2001, more than 28 million Americans lived in mixed-religion households, according to the American Religious Identification Survey, which is widely viewed as providing some of the best data on the subject. Of those households, the largest group of interfaith marriages (distinct from interdenominational Christian ones) was Christian-Jewish, and few types of couples seem to experience the December dilemma as acutely as they do.
One reason for this is that few non-Christian religions other than Judaism have significant holidays in December. (The Muslim holiday Eid-al-Adha, the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca, begins on Dec. 20 this year, but it often falls in other months.) Another reason is that many Jews, both despite and because of their assimilation into American society, are particularly conscious of threats to Jewish culture.
According to the United Jewish Communities’ National Jewish Population Survey, about 47 percent of Jews in the United States who married in 2001 married non-Jews, up from an average of 13 percent before 1970.
“You get this kind of difficult blend of family-of-origin issues as well as religious and cultural issues all at the same time,” said Karen Erlichman, a licensed clinical social worker in San Francisco who specializes in counseling interfaith couples. “They kind of sweep it under the rug for 10 months of the year, and Thanksgiving comes and it’s like, ‘Uh-oh, here we go.’”
When Scott Gamzon, who is Jewish, and his Episcopalian partner, Rick Draughon, adopted their son, Noah, three years ago, they agreed to raise him Jewish but get a tree and spend Christmas with Mr. Draughon’s family in Texas. Despite the agreement, Mr. Gamzon said he cannot help but engage in a few guerrilla tactics.
Two weeks ago he told Mr. Draughon that “it would be really nice if the house had lights all around it this year,” then sat back and did nothing to help beyond instructing him how to arrange the lights and manage the cords.
“I pretty much stood around and gave him opinions,” Mr. Gamzon said. “I had no idea how much work it actually was.”
Mr. Draughon got his revenge days later when picking up Noah from his Jewish preschool. “I put Christmas music on, and later, when Daddy Scott was in the car, Noah was singing, ‘Up on the rooftop, reindeer pause.’ Scott was like, ‘Where did he learn that?’ I was like, ‘Hmm, I don’t know.’”
Then, on Saturday, while entertaining guests for dinner, Mr. Draughon set an iPod to play a mix of holiday songs by Diana Krall. “Scott was like, ‘Would you please turn that off,’” Mr. Draughon said. “I was like, ‘It’s not “Jingle Bells.” It’s Diana Krall.’”
But even sultry jazz versions of Christmas standards can alienate someone who does not celebrate the holiday, a concern frequently overlooked by those who grow up Christian and never experience the isolation of being part of a religious minority.
While Mr. Gamzon said he enjoyed the “forbidden fruit” aspect of decorating a tree, he said he also felt guilty about it, and vividly recalled the scolding his mother gave his younger brother more than 30 years ago when he asked for one. “My mother said, ‘If you really want a Christmas tree you can go live with the neighbors,’” he said. “We were not the Jews who had a tree.”
Jewish-Christian couples may also experience tension more acutely because “having a tree in your house can feel like just a big huge announcement that says I’ve gone over to the other side,” said Micah Sachs, the managing editor of interfaithfamily.com, a Web site that encourages interfaith couples to observe Jewish traditions. “The world is full of all these symbols: it’s full of Santa, it’s full of trees.”
That helps to explain various commercial efforts at making Hanukkah, which is not considered a primary holiday in Judaism, a festive competitor to Christmas. Among the innovations: inflatable lawn menorahs.
Early on, Danielle Kolker and her husband, Donald Viscardi, a self-described Christmas fanatic, negotiated detailed rules about holiday decorating.
“What can be seen from outside has to be completely 50-50,” Ms. Kolker said of their house in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. “If there are Christmas lights up, there have to be Hanukkah lights up too. I don’t want it to look outwardly like we’re more one than the other.”
The compromise, raising their boys Jewish but celebrating Christmas, is working well, they said. At least it was until last summer, when their 7-year-old son, Zachary, asked Ms. Kolker whether she and his father helped Santa buy presents. “He said, ‘Mom, tell me the truth.’ I said, ‘Mommy and Daddy help buy some of them.’ I didn’t say, ‘There’s no Santa Claus.’”
Mr. Viscardi, a private tutor who has twice been a Macy’s Santa, was disturbed that his wife even suggested that the mythology of Christmas could be anything less than true. “I was upset she said that without thinking about the repercussions,” he said. “Going through Macy’s program, being trained as a Santa, I know you never want to destroy that illusion, at least until they get to be a little bit older, anyway.”
For her part, Ms. Kolker cannot help but be annoyed that she has to shop for and wrap a bunch of gifts and then put Santa’s name on them. “He gets credit for everything,” she said.
Susan Needles, a clinical social worker in Manhattan who holds workshops for Christian-Jewish couples sponsored by an organization called Interfaith Community, said the only way to reach a mutually satisfying arrangement is through careful discussion and negotiation.
“Attention has to be paid to how they’re going to incorporate their dual faiths as they go forward in marriage and in their life together,” she said. “That requires work: finding the language to communicate how they feel; discovering what they feel and what they know about their own faith; and discovering what they know and feel about their partner’s faith. It’s harder than buying furniture you both like, and that can be hard.”
Outreach programs across the country have lately tried to help couples achieve this goal. But they can do little to relieve the stress caused by another major source of holiday conflict: extended families.
Frank Manata, Amy’s husband, said that his wife has been supportive of his desire to share Christmas with their sons, but that his in-laws have been less than enthusiastic. Three years ago they clashed over his practice of allowing the boys to play with their Lionel train set around the holidays, then packing it up with the ornaments.
“Her parents think I’m a terrible person for putting it away,” Mr. Manata said. “I’m like: ‘No, it’s a Christmas tradition. It’s up for a month, that’s what makes it special, that’s how we did it.’ So my father-in-law bought a huge Lionel train set and put it up in his basement, so the boys have a train to play with all year long.”
Mr. Manata, who was annoyed by the train episode, never said anything to his in-laws because, he said, they are otherwise wonderful. But now he finds himself facing another indirect assault: he chipped in with them to buy a big gift for the boys, a Nintendo Wii, but his mother-in-law wants to give it at Hanukkah and not on Christmas.
“Well, maybe I don’t want to give it to them on Hanukkah,” said Mr. Manata, whose wife explained her parents’ behavior as a reaction to feeling threatened by Christmas.
Even the anticipated disapproval of a parent can influence family dynamics. Twenty-one years ago, when they married, Ron Klain and his wife, Monica Medina, struck a deal: their daughter and two sons would be raised Jewish (for him), but they would celebrate Christmas (for her).
Despite their satisfaction with the arrangement, the couple, who live in Chevy Chase, Md., have never put up the tree while Mr. Klain’s mother is visiting from Indianapolis. Instead, they wait until after her annual December visit.
“I grew up in Indiana, with a decent-size Jewish community, but we were a distinct minority,” Mr. Klain said. “Not having a Christmas tree was very much part of our Jewish identity in a place where everyone else did.”
Ms. Manata said that after her struggles, she no longer feels there is any holiday battle to fight. Several years ago a friend who is Catholic told her, “Nothing is going to be as big as Christmas; you’re not going to be able to make it as big as Christmas,” Ms. Manata said. “As soon as she said that, it kind of clicked with me. It’s not a race. We’re not keeping score. If I compete, my kids are not learning much from me.”
Many interfaith families who have managed to create their own traditions enjoy at least a bit of domestic peace. The first year of Brad and Linda Simon’s marriage in 1978, Mr. Simon, who is Jewish, sought the perfect everything bagel: seasonings evenly distributed, a symmetrically round shape and a hole that was just right for a red holiday light to poke through. Then he shellacked it, and it has adorned the top of their tree — Ms. Simon is Catholic — every year since. (“In the late ’80s it finally fell apart, and I had to shellac another one,” he said.)
Dana Reynolds, a mother of two toddlers in Albuquerque who was raised Jewish, has struggled to accept having a tree in the house ever since she married a Catholic man nine years ago. Although she put up with it every year that her husband, Jeff, decided to have one, she never really participated. “I kind of tolerated him doing it,” she said.
But lately she has been rethinking her attitude. After Mr. Reynolds left last week on a trip to Africa, she arranged to have a nine-foot tree delivered to the house. Then she and the boys, whom the couple are raising Jewish, spent Monday decorating it, to surprise Mr. Reynolds on his return next week.
“He’s not just my husband anymore — he’s the father of my kids,” Ms. Reynolds said. “I want my kids to celebrate diversity and coexist with everyone.”
It was a gesture worthy of a Christmas — or Hanukkah — TV special. “I’m hoping that he’ll see I’m not just saying I’m comfortable and open to him, but that he really believes it,” she said.
jeudi, décembre 06, 2007
the most wonderful time of the year
Having been in a mixed-faith relationship before, lots of these conflicts were all too familiar. Lucky for me, I'm no longer in the relationship and am free to enjoy a smorgasbord approach to chrismahanukwanzaeidfestivusice (enjoying all the tasty and fun parts and avoiding the heavy, distasteful ones).