Beyond Chrismukkah: An Interview with Samira Mehta

Beyond Chrismukkah: An Interview with Samira Mehta December 13, 2018

 

It’s December, the month for feasting on latkes and Buche de Noel, lighting menorahs and Advent wreaths, and singing “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and “Deck the Halls.” For interfaith Christian-Jewish families, though, the merry-making can be unusually complicated. Which holidays do they celebrate? Which traditions do they observe? And how do decisions about Christmas and Hanukkah relate to broader questions about identity, belief, practice, and pluralism?

 

 

To understand how interfaith families have handled these issues, I interviewed Dr. Samira Mehta, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College and author of Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States (University of North Carolina Press, 2018). As she points out, decades before Seth Cohen celebrated the holiday of Chrismukkah on The O.C. , interfaith families were finding their own ways to create happy and harmonious families across boundaries of religious and cultural difference, during the holiday season and beyond.

 

 

Interview Highlights

 

On early approaches to interfaith marriage in the 1970s: 

“The first thing that I think is important to say is that this is a moving target. It runs historically…how people have understood “best practices” have changed over time. At the beginning of the period that I’m writing about, really, there was sort of unilateral agreement on the part of the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic clergy that it was best for interfaith families to pick one religion for their home and to really celebrate one religion. And what that one religion should be—obviously, the different kinds of clergy had different opinions about that. The Church would prefer that people stay Catholic…The mainline Protestants, for a wide array of reasons, tended to support Jewish arguments that there should be one religion in the home, and it should be Judaism.”

 

On the symbolism of Christmas trees and the pressure placed on interfaith families who affiliated with Judaism not to celebrate Christmas:

“But the people really controlling the conversation about what interfaith families should look like at that time in the early debates was the Reform movement. The Reform movement in the 1970s was really at a low end of observant, and it’s been trending toward more robust Jewish practice over the past 50 years, but you can make the argument that especially in the 1970s and early 1980s, what marks Jewish homes as Jewish at that time was actually not so much things like Shabbat candles or Shabbat dinners or some sort of Shabbat practice or mezuzahs on the door or things like that, so much as an absence of Christian markers, and in particular absence of things like Christmas trees. And so, for people who chose to affiliate with Jewish communities and institutions, there was a lot of pressure to not have Christmas trees and to not celebrate Christmas in their own homes. There was a lot of anxiety that Judaism wouldn’t be able to win or compete against the fun of Christmas and the cultural dominance of Christianity.”

 

 

On celebrating Christmas as “secular American families”: 

“Simultaneously, many interfaith families did not formally affiliate with Judaism and did not become Jewish families. Rather, they tended to become secular American families, which meant that they were doing things like celebrating Christmas. From many Jewish perspectives, that looks like you’re a Christian family…Secular Americans who are doing Christian things in their secular American ways, to non-Christians, look like Christianity. But, from a Christian standpoint, these are not necessarily people who are going to church or believing in Jesus. These are people who are putting up Christmas trees and believing in Santa Claus until an age-appropriate time to stop believing in Santa Claus.”

 

On interfaith families’ wide range of practices and approaches during the December holidays:

“So if what you’re worried about is that those Christmas-celebrating families will become Christian, in a theological way, they’re probably not. If you’re worried that they’re looking like secular Christians, rather than secular Jews, they probably are. If what you’re worried about is that they’re not staying Jewish in affiliated, institutional ways, that’s also probably true. By contrast, for the families that do choose to affiliate with Judaism, there’s often still a requirement or a request that they not continue to celebrate Christmas. Some families really comply with that, and some families don’t. Some families continue to put up Christmas trees and celebrate Christmas and lie to the synagogues…and other families give up Christmas and give up Christmas trees, and they do that for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s really super duper important to the Jewish partner that there be no Christmas tree, and sometimes, it’s really super duper important to the community. The Christian partner will sometimes think that’s fine and will find a meaningful set of observances and practices in Judaism, and that will feel good and right, and things will feel replaced. But other times, there’s a lot of resentment. The Christian spouse says, ‘You know, I’ve given up my religious community, I’ve given up my religious traditions, I’m doing all of the things for your family.’ Especially if the husband is the Jewish partner and the wife is the Christian partner, she’s often been more responsible for making the holiday, and that either means that she’s doing a huge amount of work to make his holiday and his family traditions, and hers are not being honored in the home. Or, she’s not doing a ton of work to do those things, and so it ends up being a joyless holiday time. And so there is a notable range.”

 

On the complicated relationship that American Jews have with Hanukkah:

“Hanukkah has a really complicated relationship and identity in American Judaism. From a strictly Jewish calendar standpoint, Hanukkah is a really minor celebration. In the American context—for reasons that have a lot to do with its proximity to Christmas, but also has to do with intersections between American Judaism and consumer culture that are not super dissimilar between intersections with Christmas and American consumer culture—Hanukkah gets a lot more play…A huge amount of this has to do with assimilation to American norms or competition with American norms. Is making Hanukkah a big deal an instance of American Jews assimilating to American secular Christian norms? …There are times in the 1950s when lots of Jews are doing things like putting up Christmas trees, and part of the punching-up of Hanukkah is fighting that mode of assimilation and coming up with a Jewish alternative.”

 

On December holidays as secular “fun family time”:

“You get families that are not necessarily interested in affiliating with a religious community, but are basically secular families. That’s sometimes, often, how the interfaith marriage happened in the first place…Neither person in the couple was deeply invested in what Wuthnow calls ‘religious dwelling.’ Maybe they were seekers; maybe what they had in common was actually that they met at a Zen center or a yoga retreat or they like to follow Phish…Or maybe they’re not deeply religious—kind of secular American people. So, they’re interested in celebrating Christmas, they might be interested in Hanukkah, they might be interested in Easter and Passover, but they’re interested in them as fun family time. They’re doing whatever they’re going to do, and they don’t care which religious institution, or about religious institutions at all.”

 

 

On the second generation of interfaith families and their distinctive approach to Christmas and Hanukkah:

“There are people who have formally affiliated with Judaism and are really involved in Jewish community but have made some sort of commitment to also celebrating Christmas. And what these people would say is, ‘Look, our lifelong, day-in, day-out commitment to being Jewish and to having Jewish community is not threatened by basically having the same Christmas celebration held by secular Americans’—you know, putting up a Christmas tree and having some lights and having Santa Claus. We’re not talking about the Baby Jesus necessarily. There are Jews who remember growing up with Christmas trees in more assimilationist households and celebrating secular Christmases that didn’t make them feel less Jewish. There are a lot of interfaith families in which the Jewish parent themselves is the child of an interfaith marriage and maybe grew up with Christmas, and again that’s because we’re really in this second-generation. Children of that first big wave of interfaith marriage are now getting married, and the ones who affiliated with Judaism either really know that the Christian parent maybe was a little bit coerced into giving up Christmas and don’t want to do that to their spouses, or grew up in families that did somehow celebrate Christmas and want to do so also.”

 

Chrismukkah tree topped with Moses and the Star of David. Kumar McMillan, 2008. Via Wikimedia Commons.

 

On interfaith families’ efforts to distinguish “religion” from “culture,” to allow for more flexibility in combining practices from different traditions:

“It’s really important to know that, in this case, religion and culture are first-order terms. They’re terms being used by the families themselves, rather than a term that I as a scholar am using to describe what they’re doing. I’m not personally interested in whether we think a Christmas tree is religious or cultural, and I’m also not interested in asking if the Baby Jesus is religious or cultural…What I’m interested in is how people use these terms strategically to get at particular realities. When people tend to use the word religion, they are often gesturing in the direction of theology, and they’re trying to imply fixed meaning and things that can’t be combined. For example, either you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, or you don’t; you can’t believe both things at once…

 

“Culture is a word that people use when they’re interested in figuring out ways to combine things. On the one hand, they’re stripping practice of their ‘original’ meaning sometimes, of certain kinds of theological meaning. They are sometimes taking things that are not necessarily theologically equivalent in those more traditional, institutional religious eyes and making them equivalent. So, eating matzo ball soup and keeping kosher are not equivalent things, but eating matzo ball soup can come to stand in for certain kinds of identity. Lighting Shabbat candles and lighting Advent candles, maybe those are actually pretty equivalent, and people want to argue for doing both, but again, they’re making things that are not necessarily equivalent, equivalent. Singing “Silent Night, Holy Night” and singing “Ma’o Tzur” are not singing “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” But you might decide this makes them seem equivalent. When interfaith families do that, they are also re-inscribing nuance, and they’re inscribing meanings about intercultural communication and tolerance and valuing diversity and valuing peace on Earth and valuing humanity and brotherhood and preservation of tradition and culture and valuing of family stories, and these are things that are sacred in different ways. So when they re-inscribe meaning, they’re both re-inscribing moral meaning and re-inscribing kinds of sacrality into these practices.”

 

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