Merry Happy Something


I started planning for the 2010 winter holiday season about a year ago. My wife and I had already been matched with our son’s birthmother, so I made an appointment with Rabbi Amy Small at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. I wanted to talk through what I needed to know about making sure the kid was Jewish not only according to me, but according to the laws and traditions of Judaism.

Her answers were pretty straightforward: have a brit milah (ritual circumcision) for sure, go to a mikveh (ritual immersion) maybe, and then just make sure teach him everything he needs to know in order to live a good Jewish life. Sounded pretty simple.

Where it gets complicated is that I am Jewish and my son is Jewish…but my wife is not.

She is not a practitioner of the Catholicism she was born into (nor does she have any interest in being Jewish), but we still celebrate Christmas with her family. It’s a fun, mostly secularized affair—insofar as there’s no churchgoing or manger dioramas or anything else to connect the holiday too tightly with the story of Jesus’ birth—but hey, it’s Christmas, which is Christian by nature.

So here we are on the cusp of our son’s first Hanukkah and within striking distance of his first Christmas. He’s got grandparents on both sides that are excited to plop a busload of gifts in front of him. He won’t know what’s going on this first time, but there will be photos taken and precedents set that will roll into next year, the year after that, and so on.

It’s hard to know exactly how to play it, even with all of our good planning. My wife and I have been discussing how to raise a Jewish kid with a mixed Jewish/Christian family for many years, but now the theoretical ideas of Merry Happy Something have to play out in a real world that has complicated religious, cultural and traditional messages coming from all corners. It’ll be easy to get some of it wrong, but also not too difficult to get most of it right. We’ll just have to spin the dreidel, try to do what’s best for him and comfortable-ish for our families, and enjoy our first set of holidays together.

Have you had notable successes (or teachable-moment failures) celebrating the holidays as a religiously/culturally mixed family? Please post your stories and/or advice in the comments.

(Photo: Flickr/somethingmarissa)

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  1. Christ, is this a new dilemma? No.

    Do we hear a version of this story every year? Yes.

    Is it interesting? No.. Perhaps 25 years ago, but in 2010 where a family is defined as whatever the participants like, I find this boring as hell.

    So try this: make up your own ritual and stick with it. Her house on Christmas Day, Hanukkah at yours. Or something.

    But be respectful of every Holiday, which means limit the dumbness of “Merry Happy Something.” It’s dumb and silly.

  2. It might not be a new dilemma in the greater world, but it is a new dilemma for this new family. No need to be rude about it.

    Our family is in a similar situation with this being our first holiday season with our son and one parent being Jewish and the other Christian. We plan to celebrate both holidays. And as time goes on, our own family traditions will emerge.

  3. deebee11, I am sorry for sounding rude, it was not my intention. And I certainly wish you and your family the best during this holiday season.

    My issue, is that just because something is new to you (or in this case the writer of this post) DOESN’T mean it’s new or even of interest to others. Because really: Is this the first inter-religious marriage around these parts? Ah, no. This is a decidedly normal story. That it’s elevated to this is, and may be why my post read “rude,” it’s because this smacks of the “LOOK AT ME” times we are in (see FB, Twitter, Location Based services, etc.).

    Fine. You’re of a mixed religious family- so what? What’s NEW about YOUR mixed religious family? Nothing here. Which is why it so tired to me.

    I’ll be thrilled to read a new take on this old story, rather than just the old story with new names.

  4. profwilliams, my intention here was not a “look at me!” thing, but rather a “don’t forget about this” approach. I’ve been Jewish during the winter holidays for a few decades now…and every year, it bears repeating to some that it is not a secular holiday (or at least that it’s not a time of inclusiveness for everyone). Similarly, I’d argue that this is a small morsel of food for thought that can stand some repetition – especially since each year, there will be a cohort of first-timers (like me) who will suddenly feel the difference between theory and practice.

    Messages don’t always transmit and sink in with one (or even a dozen) mention. I know this one might seem past due for some readers, but I suspect it will register for the first time for some others in the audience.

  5. FWIW, the post interesting to me too. Prof, did you ever consider commenting on the posts you find interesting, and leaving the others alone? I know you like to chime in on everything, but if you don’t have anything nice to say, … otherwise your constant commenting comes of as you saying, “LOOK AT ME!”

  6. Brain, I remember being at a Seder dinner with my daughter when she was 3 wondering if this was the year she might get confused about “Why is this night different from all other nights?”and why does a giant rabbit hide eggs?

    A very wise man told me the punchline to a joke which I cannot quite remember (the joke that is) “Do unto others, the rest is all filler”This worked for me being I am not a very religious person.

    Today I’m making Sufganiyot, next week gingerbread people. I and my kids love it all.

    Just remember babies like to play with the wrapping more than the actual gifts. They don’t seem to care if it is blue and silver or red and green :). Have a wonderful first Hanukkah.

  7. Nothing wrong with exposing your child to the beauty of both holidays (which as you know have absolutely nothing to do with one another other than that they fall around the same time of year). When he is old enough, he can chose one or the other, or both if he wishes. Critics of this approach says it confuses the child but I disagree. You are presenting both, you are not advocating one over the other.

  8. (All this and 9 comments!!!! The most on the bkids homepage!!)

    I stand by my comment that this “story” is a rehashing and retelling of one we read every year.

    @Mr. Herman, are you kidding me with the “if you don’t have anything nice to say” comment? What is this, 2nd grade? I comment because I feel like it. But if you like, try this: whenever you see my name- ignore it. Really, I don’t care if you look at me or not. I have not offered my deeply personal relationships as fodder to a blog, I’m a (relatively) anonymous fool who likes to comment on what he sees around him (here and elsewhere). However, I have not offered ANY expression of my life for comment- as Mr. Glaser has here. That I have commented and it has offended is of no real concern to me. When one chooses to tell the world about their personal issues– the response they get is on them.

  9. My first reaction to this was the same as prof’s…here we go again..the “Holiday” discussion on B’Net, which we can count on every year along with Christmas trees and Hanukkah, However, there may be another element here…

    I would strongly encourage you to expose your son to both sides of his heritage. I’m Italian/Irish by birth, but in deference to my father, was raised very Irish American and that is what I relate to as an adult. It’s sad, today, that I feel somewhat like an outsider at my Italian family’s holiday celebrations, since I never experienced their ethnic traditions as a child. My mother could speak Italian fluently, and many of my cousins can. I regret the missed opportunity to be bilingual.

    So, I would suggest letting your sone experience both traditions…It can’t be anything less than enriching for him and a wonderful exposure to two separate cultures…

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