Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My boyfriend is Jewish and I’m not. I really love Christmas and he doesn’t want to have it in our apartment. I’m not religious; I just love all the fun things about Christmas. A friend of mine suggested that I just start small and gradually introduce Christmassy things each year until I wear him down. I feel awkward doing that on purpose. Is it a good idea or is it kind of sneaky? — Loving Christmas
Dear Loving: I’m with you; it’s not a good idea. You’d be surprised how many non-Jewish partners use that very phrase, “I’ll wear him/her down.” What that, in fact, involves is deception. It is an attempt to gradually change the dynamics of your home, so gradually that presumably your loved one won’t notice. For some people that could work. But for many, the change hits them one day, and they feel tricked.
What can add to the negative reaction at the moment of realization is that a part of them questions whether they have a right to reject Christmas practices when they know full well that last year they went along with the big tree and the year before that they went along with the party on Christmas Eve. They feel sort of guilty and ask themselves, when did I accept all this because clearly I did. The guilt leads to increased anger at themselves and at their partner.
Additionally, the Christian or secular person can feel like, hey, you were fine with this last year. You didn’t say anything about the tree and the caroling, why are you so upset about Christmas wrapping paper? Since the Christian spouse has gotten used to the evolving arrangement too, she may feel surprised and hurt by this sudden shift of emotions. Even worse, the Jewish partner may respond with silent anger and withdrawal. It can turn into a passive-aggressive reaction of, “I’m not mad. It’s just your thing; I’ll be working late.”
If extended family, parents and siblings have become a part of the expanding Christmas, it adds to the awkwardness. You may find yourself saying, “What am I supposed to do? Tell my parents you refuse to attend their Christmas celebration?” The Jewish partner feels trapped and betrayed and the non-Jewish partner feels hurt and misunderstood.
You say you love Christmas, so be honest with your boyfriend. Tell him you know he doesn’t want to have the holiday in your home. Discuss which aspects of the holiday are particularly meaningful to each of you. You may love being with your family, making your grandmother’s special gingerbread and trimming the tree. He may feel that he is drowning in a culture not his own and that the world really doesn’t understand what it means to be a Jew, especially at this time of year. Try to hear what each other is feeling and to understand how this holiday elicits these emotions.
At a workshop I ran, there were two non-Jewish wives. One told the group that she did “everything Jewish,” but she wanted Christmas to be the one concession to her upbringing. So she and her husband celebrated it in their home.
The other wife said that her husband felt overwhelmed by the Christmas season, which permeated everywhere. She said that her husband needed for their home to be a sanctuary where he could escape from the onslaught of Christmas, so they did not observe Christmas.
You and your boyfriend need to find your place in that continuum. There are so many options that I can’t list them all. But here are some things to consider:
• What are the strong feelings that each of you have — positive and negative?
• Who will be impacted by your decisions — extended family, your spiritual communities, children, whether current or future.
• Are there elements of Hanukkah that can meet your need to celebrate? A party, seeing friends, baking?
• Don’t let the commercialism of Christmas define your activities. Look for actions that hold deeper meaning than a mere material item.
• Ask your boyfriend what he is doing that is Jewish? He may need to get Jewishly active.