This year, Christmas will fall during Hanukkah, which will mean a busy day for the Martino family of Melrose. “We’ll definitely light the menorah for Santa, and we’ll cook latkes, so it’s a lot to keep straight,” said Deb Martino, a lawyer with two children. “We have Hanukkah decorations, and Christmas decorations, and our kids have grown up in that environment, and they just feel lucky that they get to celebrate it all.”
Deb Martino, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Nashua, N.H., and her husband John, who grew up in an Italian Catholic family in Brooklyn, are one of many local interfaith couples who have wrestled with questions of identity over the years to create a hybrid holiday celebration with which they can feel comfortable. They identify as Jewish and celebrate Hanukkah wholeheartedly, but also put up a Christmas tree and have Christmas dinner with John’s parents.
According to Jodi Bromberg, CEO of InterfaithFamily, the “December dilemma” can place strain on interfaith relationships. “One of the reasons that December is often one of the most stressful times for interfaith couples and families is because it is when they most acutely feel like an interfaith couple,” said Bromberg. “When it comes to Hanukkah and Christmas, and the proximity of the two holidays, and negotiating familial relationships around that and how those two holidays are celebrated, that’s often where tensions build.”
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but by and large, interfaith families across the North Shore have been able to successfully navigate the potential minefield. Though there is variation, four families follow roughly the same model, one that InterfaithFamily user surveys have shown to be a common one: they are raising their children Jewish, which means they celebrate many Jewish holidays, send them to Hebrew school, plan on having a bar or bat mitzvah, and teach their children to personally identify as Jewish. The non-Jewish parent, who was usually not very religious to begin with, is comfortable with this arrangement, regardless of whether they personally identify as Jewish or plan to convert. However, they find it hard to give up Christmas, but often for nostalgic rather than religious reasons. When December rolls around, the families celebrate both holidays, with Christmas trees and stockings sharing space with menorahs and dreidels.
“We agreed that we would raise the children Jewish, and his only request before we got married was that he didn’t want to give up Christmas,” said Lauren Iozza, a benefits manager from Stoneham, about her Italian Catholic husband Steve. “When I say Christmas, I mean decorations. My husband is not a religious man, and he doesn’t go to Mass for Christmas – he doesn’t really ever go to church, so it’s kind of funny – on Christmas, he likes to go all out on decorations, so that was the only discussion we had. We agreed early on that the kids would be raised Jewish, and he would have his decorations.”
Even though Iozza says she initially felt slightly uncomfortable with her husband decking the halls with boughs of holly, she’s gotten used to it, particularly because there is no Christian imagery anywhere.
Still, other Jewish spouses struggled more. Hannah Miller, a therapist in Melrose who grew up Jewish, resisted having a tree for many years because she didn’t feel comfortable with one in her home. Her husband Ranjeev, though never religious, began to miss having a tree once they had children. “For a couple of years, he was like, ‘How about a tree? How about a tree?’ and I was like, ‘How about no – we’re Jewish!’ To me it was kind of a no-brainer – like, why would we have a tree? That’s weird,” said Miller. “He kept saying, ‘I’m totally respectful of what you’re saying, Hannah, but I just want to understand why – it feels very knee-jerk. I’m doing all these things important to you.’ I said, ‘fine, we can have a tree, but not a real one, because I don’t want to deal with the mess.’ ”
Indeed, Miller’s tree is not real – it’s a small, plug-in tree from Target that she doesn’t even call a “Christmas tree.” It’s decorated with winter ornaments and Stars of David, which is fitting, because Miller was the only one interviewed who said that her family does not celebrate Christmas.
However, none of the people interviewed refer to their holiday celebrations as “Chrismukkah,” a portmanteau of “Christmas” and “Hanukkah” that has been popular since it featured prominently on an episode of “The O.C.” in 2003. Some families, like Millers and Martinos, are fine with putting Hanukkah-themed ornaments on their tree, but that is as far as the mixing goes.
Some, like Jason Breitkopf and Kim Valkenaar of Beverly, try hard to keep the two celebrations separate. “I’ve started to notice how pervasive the Christian holidays are in school, even though it’s public school and they’re not supposed to put religious stuff in there,” said Kim, who grew up Catholic in Lynn but is now raising her daughters Jewish. She and her husband Jason, both teachers, have Kim’s mother living with them, and wanted their daughters to have the experience of celebrating Christmas with their grandmother.
“I’ve worked really hard with the kids to separate Christmas and Hanukkah, but when they do overlap, it becomes a challenge to keep those holidays separate on their own, because they each have their lovely charm,” Valkenaar said.
Gift-giving makes the overlap of the holidays more complicated still. Martino said resignedly that celebrating both holidays gets expensive. Others set quotas. Iozza gives her children small gifts each night of Hanukkah, a more substantial gift at the end and no Hanukkah gifts when it falls on Christmas. Miller gives gifts for each night of Hanukkah and participates in a non-denominational gift exchange with relatives. For her “secular Santa kids,” as she calls them, Valkenaar gives small gifts each night of Hanukkah, and on Christmas, she gives them “something you want, something you need, and something to read.”
“It’s not excessive, because for Hanukkah, they’re getting something every night,” she said.
Despite varying approaches, all these interfaith parents see the opportunity to honor two ancient holidays centered around light, family and giving as one of the ultimate gifts. “It’s a little bit confusing at times, but I feel like the more the merrier,” said Martino. “This is how we were both raised, and this is part of who we are.”