a photo of a decorate christmas tree with a menorah burning in the background
(Photo/Flickr-Benjamin Golub CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

How do I tell my Catholic parents that I don’t plan to have Christmas?

Dear Dawn: I was raised Catholic and left the church many years ago. When I married my Jewish wife, we had a Jewish wedding. My very Catholic parents came because “Jesus was Jewish” and they thought any religion in my life would be a road back to the church. I have zero intention of practicing Christianity and am very comfortable with Judaism. Maybe I’ll convert someday. The problem: We have “shared” our holidays by spending Thanksgiving with my parents and Hanukkah with my wife’s parents. Because of Covid, we all doubt there will be either this year. My parents are requesting that, once things are normal again, we spend every other year with them for Christmas. Truthfully, I have never made it clear to my parents, who live on the other coast, that we will never celebrate Christmas. Should I tell them? If so, how do I do that? They are quite religious. Right now, they love my wife, but I’m afraid this will turn them against her. — Bad Son

Dear Son: First, I refuse to call you “bad.” Second, it’s time to step up to the plate and be honest with your parents. It is unfortunate that you have waited this long, since it has probably created more hope for your parents that you will return to the Catholic fold. But the sooner they know and can begin adapting, the better.

Make this very clearly about you, not about your wife. Don’t say anything to sour the relationship they have with their daughter-in-law. You have made it clear to me that this is your journey away from your birth religion; make it clear to them, too.

If possible, sit down and make a list of the concerns you expect your parents to have. Some possibilities could be: You are leaving behind your childhood and possibly them. They may feel this separates you from them. They may worry that you are going to hell, having heard the teachings of Jesus and rejected them. They may fear that Jews go to hell and have been harboring a hope that your wife will convert. They will no doubt grieve the loss of Christmas and Easter celebrations with you and your children, when you have them.

Come up with some solutions. Assure them that you love them and have not spoken up because you knew it would hurt them. Have some suggestions on how to stay connected — weekly phone calls, video chats, regular texts. Come up with something you can maintain whether it is a Sunday evening call or a weekly handwritten letter. They need to feel your love.

If they are devout Catholics, they may benefit from reading an article from a scholarly Catholic group titled “A Sacred Obligation,” expressing a Catholic view of Judaism.

Acknowledge that your children-to-be will not celebrate Christian holidays and that you want to be sure that the bond between grandchild and grandparent is still strong. You can plan to spend time in their city over summer vacation. Go on camping trips with them. Create a special holiday, Grandpa & Grandma Day, when you send them presents. Point out activities that are unique to them — crossword puzzles, woodworking, reading, hiking, painting — and let them know that you will be anticipating their sharing these special-to-them activities with your children in years to come.

Encourage them to think this over and to share their feelings with you. They will probably have an immediate reaction, but urge them to also take some time to reflect on this. It is important to them and their thoughts will evolve.

If they bring up something you had not anticipated and for which you have no reply, be honest and say, “I’m not sure how to respond to that, but I’ll think about it and get back to you.” Then do.

Be sure to discuss this with your wife so you are on the same page. She may have some insight into the things most likely to be on your parents’ minds.

Consider talking to your rabbi, or if you have a friend who is a priest, with him. A clergy member may have additional ideas, given that they are often called upon by worrying parents.

Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org.