Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via email@example.com.
Last year you wrote about “Christmas envy” for Jewish families with young children, but our situation is different. We are an interfaith family raising our children Jewish but also nurturing their close relationship with their Christian grandparents (Dad’s side), who are quite devout. Christmas is, of course, a big deal in the family, and we’ve always shared Christmas Day dinner: the warmth of family ties and too much food (they seem very Jewish in this respect). Now that our kids are 6 and 4, we wonder if we should draw a line anywhere about how much Christianity we are comfortable with. — L.D. in Dublin
Dear L.D.: Thank you for the opportunity to reach many Jewish families among our readers who are interfaith and trying to maintain a balance between religious traditions.
Christmas is upon us and is, of course, when these issues are at the forefront. But other celebrations may bring questions on how to negotiate the “dose” of Christianity to which your kids are exposed. Easter comes to mind, but if their grandparents are really devout, they might want to take the children to church for a Mass, Lent, even Pentecost (time to go online to learn more).
Before we address specifics, you should consider the larger question: Have your parents-in-law truly accepted that you are raising your children Jewish? Or is there some lingering hope and subtle (or not) efforts to influence, even convert, them? The latter is unlikely, but if it feels like some part of the Christian celebration the grandparents want your children to enjoy is a little too seductive, you probably are reacting to a covert (and likely unconscious) attempt to influence them. If an honest conversation about this seems feasible, go for it. But a delicate balancing and polite drawing of the lines may be a better path for avoiding family conflict.
As to where you draw the line, it depends very much on your own level of dis/comfort with say, an indoor tree, a jolly fat man sliding down the chimney or a bunny that leaves eggs around the lawn.
Personally, I would be perfectly comfortable with telling your kids they are getting Christmas presents from their grandparents “because they are Christians and celebrate Christmas, and giving presents is a big part of it.” I would ask the grandparents not to get Santa all mixed up in this. In my Passover column on March 16, I described how my daughter, then 5, freaked out about an invisible Elijah coming through the open door to drink from his cup. I would think Santa slithering through the chimney into the house when you are asleep may be even more unsettling.
Ask the grandparents to tell the story of the birth of Jesus so it’s palatable to you — a very special baby who grows up to be a great teacher and founder of Christianity, without the immaculate conception and son of God parts. I certainly feel that discussion and images of the crucifixion and resurrection are not appropriate for your kids’ age, but you knew that, right?
If you are OK with your children going to Mass with their grandparents, I would:
1) Make sure there’s no graphic crucifix in the church (the kind with a suffering Jesus and bleeding wounds). If there is, postpone until your kids are 8 or 9 and have more perspective on the matter, or suggest attending a church where the crucifix is more abstract (consider the Cathedral of Christ the Light on Lake Merritt in Oakland — a stunning architectural gem!).
2) Take them to shul as well, even if you don’t usually go, so they experience the parallel in a Jewish setting.
When my son was 3, our friends had a baby and invited us to the baptism. It was to be a long service, so they suggested he go with their son to the children’s program. The boys came back with huge smiles, both wearing a handmade paper crown neatly printed with “Jesus Is My King.” Our friends were mortified! They fell over themselves with apologies. And we? We laughed and have retold the story whenever we’re together.