• Mon, Dec 23 - 2:30 pm ET

Growing Up Interfaith Makes December Confusing And Sometimes Lonely

chrismukkahChristmas is three days away, and I’m spending my time in pajamas, decorating our tiny tree, baking endless treats, and watching Christmas movies. I love Christmas, or at least, the idea of Christmas–the warm house full of loving family, roasting s’mores in a fireplace, some beautiful dog to follow me around, and a feeling of belonging. In this scenario, everyone is wearing perfect sweaters, and everyone has had just enough alcohol. In a scenario that could most accurately be described as “privileged person problems,” having grown up in an interfaith household has always made Christmas, and the entire month of December, a somewhat fraught experience.

In addition the to the big surprise that someone with a name that ends in -ein even celebrates Christmas, I have always felt a bit like an outsider at Christmas. I’ve celebrated every single year, sometimes with my large, lapsed Catholic family, sometimes with my halfsie nuclear family, and more recently, with my boyfriend and assorted orphans. Although Christmas has never been a religious celebration for my family (we occasionally will attend midnight mass for my grandparents’ benefit), I still have always felt like I don’t belong. I look at my dad and sister and feel awkwardly aware of our voices, our sarcasm, and of our Jewishness.

That’s not to say Christmas is the only exclusionary holiday by any means. I’ve never celebrated a Jewish holiday where I didn’t feel like the awkward man out, not knowing the prayers or customs. I can’t even properly light a menorah to celebrate Chanukah, let alone say the prayers. Once, at a Passover celebration with my Jewish extended family, this precocious eight-year-old future sociopath loudly called me out for being the only one not saying the prayer. I said “I don’t know them,” and he said “Well, you should,” while his parents beamed with pride.

Children are really strange, especially when it comes to religious and cultural institutions. In elementary school, my mostly Jewish and occasional gentile friends would insist that I had to choose one, and I couldn’t possibly be part of both cultures. While I understand that one cannot simultaneously be a religious Jew and Catholic, they were essentially cultural institutions to me, so I couldn’t see why I couldn’t be a part of both. One girl told me I couldn’t come to her bat mitzvah if I still planned to celebrate Christmas. Another said I could come to her Christmas party but there wouldn’t be a menorah, so she wasn’t even sure if I’d want to come. I didn’t understand how something as simple as having parents from two religions translated into such a political statement.

Then again, I suppose it makes sense to feel excluded from religious holidays both Jewish and Catholic, because I technically have claim to neither. Catholicism requires baptism and I was not baptized, and my father cannot pass on Judaism to me, since Judaism is matrilineal. I guess I’m kind of a ship without a flag.

My claim to both religions is largely cultural and convenience-based. Judaism has a significant cultural element that has attached itself to me completely, regardless of my issues with the religion. Catholicism too has a cultural element, although it’s less visible. My Askenazi features, humor, stomach issues, name, and neuroses inescapably mark me as Jewish. But, as my mother (who possibly didn’t think through the implications of raising children as apathetic bothsies) insists, I am also Catholic, in some way.

I suppose this was also complicated by my parents refusal to blend the holidays and what I perceive as an unbalanced system of appeasal from each parent to eachother’s religion. I understand now that their religious upbringings were important to each of them, regardless of their waning beliefs. My sister and I campaigned for Christmukah or Festivus–a tree topped with a menorah and a Christmas fish with latkes on the side, but blending would be unheard of. I think we felt that if we created something new that was all our own, nobody could tell us that we didn’t belong.

December is one of my favorite months. I’m a sucker for holiday cheer, extravagant meals, gift giving, and holiday parties. But in what I think of as the two pillars of December–Chanukah and Christmas–I’m an outsider at both. Creating my own Christmas (like so many people are doing nowadays) is a way to make my own holiday where nobody can tell me to get out.

Photo: The OC (Fox)

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  • Kaitlin Reilly

    I can’t believe an eight year old shamed you for not knowing your prayers.

    • Julia Sonenshein

      I know! What a little monster.

    • Lackadaisical

      If my 8 year old did something similar I would tell him off for being rude and ask him to apologise. I certainly wouldn’t beam with pride.

  • CJP

    Hi there, I was just wondering if you have any tips or ideas to make December easier on interfaith kids? My son is only 1, and I just sort of assumed that since we celebrate both, he would feel included in both, but I never really considered he might feel excluded from both… So if your family could do it all again, do you think festivus is the way to go? Or any other ideas?

    • Julia Sonenshein

      Sure! looking back, I think that creating new traditions like festivus would have been wonderful. I also know that inviting other outsiders to whatever your tradition is is really important, so that it’s a good mix of insiders and outsiders. drop me an email at julia.sonenshein@alloydigital.com if you want to chat about it more. I have TONS of thoughts about growing up interfaith.

    • Alana

      Hi! I also grew up in an interfaith household and had (still have) a fabulous experience. Christmas is my favorite holiday, even though I identify myself more culturally as a Jew. My parents were very big on learning each others religions and cultures, and mixing things to create new traditions. I think its important to blend families and cultures. When Hanukkah and Christmas are close together, we celebrate Christmukkah. We’ll make latkes and dye the sour cream green and the apple sauce red. We decorate dreidel cookies and christmas tree cookies and snowman cookies too. My Jewish mom loves to sing Christmas carols and my dad learned all our prayers. Its up to the parents to set the example. If you make being interfaith normal, then your kids won’t feel any different. I’m a better person for being raised in an interfaith household and I would never change it.

    • Julia Sonenshein

      Oh my god I LOVE the red and green sour cream/applesauce idea. I love it.

    • Julia Sonenshein

      Also! I forgot to mention in my comment that although the holidays can be less than ideal, I love that I grew up interfaith and was exposed to two cultures. It gave me many more opportunities to learn about the world and see things from multiple points of view. I wouldn’t trade it under any circumstances.

  • Rachel

    Ah, yes. My mother was raised Jewish and my father Catholic. Neither are religious today but I also grew up “celebrating” both Christmas and Hanukkah. I look super Jew-y, but my dad is half Italian and Italians and Jews look alike anyway.