Navigating December

December 11, 2010

Tis the season for decorated trees, stockings, Christmas carols, and Santa, but in our house it is also the season for on-going discussions and the need for some type of emotional GPS system (why hasn't that been invented yet?). It's a complicated time of year for all of us. For me it comes with many layers and memories of Christmas pasts. I grew up loving Christmas and to be honest, I still do, because it carries with it some of my favorite smells, tastes, traditions, feel-good movies, and family gatherings. I can't quash the fuzzy, warm feelings mingled with a bit of homesickness that always seem to swell up inside me when I catch the glimpse of a Christmas tree through someone's window. But now that I am the proud mama to two Jewish kiddos, Christmas has become a little murkier.

Prior to getting engaged, Adam and I went to interfaith counseling. Not just a couple of sessions but two years of counseling. We had lots of issues to wade through together and individually....San Francisco Jewish boy in the military meets Cajun, Catholic, country girl. That's not exactly an easy mix, but we were best friends, we were in love, and we took our relationship seriously. There were intense conversations with our families, our friends, rabbis, nuns, and other interfaith couples. There were moments of disappointment and loss; moments of humor and humility, and moments of clarity and peace, and we eventually came to some decisions regarding our future together. One of those decisions was that we would raise our children in a Jewish home. 

That decision has turned the month of December into a bit of a quagmire for us. When the kids were younger and attending a Jewish preschool, things weren't that tricky. We didn't need to explain what Hanukkah was to the teachers or school friends. We didn't have to explain why we didn't have a Christmas tree or why the presents were wrapped in blue paper instead of red. At that time we were also living in the States and we were able to travel to Louisiana each year for my family's annual Christmas/New Year's celebrations and being there made the holidays feel like the perfect mix to me. But now that we are living overseas and the kids are older, I have to admit that the holiday season has become more challenging. 

Last year was hard for Noah. He was the only Jewish kid in his class, the only Jewish kid in the entire elementary school, and actually probably just one of a handful of Jewish kids in all of southern Italy. And guess what first graders love to talk about in December? Santa. Lots of Santa discussions and suddenly Noah realized not just that he was different, but that he was the only one who wasn't getting a visit from Santa and it pissed him off. There's just no other way to explain it. He was mad. And I can't blame him. I even have to admit to very briefly considering changing our stance on the whole Christmas issue...maybe Santa could make a quick visit? But that didn't feel right. Having been raised in a Catholic family, attending Catholic schools for twelve years, Catholic Mass twice a week...Christmas is very clearly lodged in my mind as a sacred, religious holiday. It is not something to be twisted on a whim to include a surprise visit from Santa to a lone Jewish boy in Sicily. It just didn't feel right and if you know Noah in real life, you know, that he is a skeptic and he would have seen through that ploy faster than the singing of Jingle Bells. 

I am glad we didn't add Santa to the mix, because it has opened the doors for some good family talks about being Jewish. That's the duality of being in such a minority group here: we have to work harder to solidify what it means to be Jewish.  If we want to celebrate Jewish holidays or have services, we have to travel to larger Jewish congregations or we organize our own with the other Jewish families here (now at a grand total of three), and so we do. If want special Jewish food or holiday items, we have to plan ahead and order well in advance.We are forced to be more purposeful and thoughtful in our practice as a family, as parents, as individuals and that's a good thing. But it isn't easy.

Which brings us to this December...Noah is not mad like he was last year at this time, but we are continuing to deal with December related issues. During the past week, Noah has come home with four different school related issues. None of the issues are happening in his classroom, but they are taking place in the special classes...Santa projects in art class, Christmas cards in Italian class, Christmas carols in music class, school-wide Christmas performance...and when Noah asked to do different tasks, there wasn't an alternative. Which means we have had to speak up at the school multiple times in the course of just one week. I know that this is part of the deal. We have to educate and advocate, especially while our children are young, but sometimes I wish it didn't need to be quite so much work. And I don't mean the physical work of calling or talking to school staff, I mean the emotional work of it. I have to admit it is starting to make me a tad bitter about Christmas and I don't want that to happen for me or for the kids. Because although we don't celebrate Christmas in our home, it is a part of who I am and who my family is and therefore also a part of my kids and that is the sticky part of all this December business. 


I know we aren't the only families out there navigating these December issues and I know that every family has it's own way of mapping it out. This is just where we are this December. Trying to stay the course, trying to smooth out the wrinkles, trying to stay connected to roots, while also moving ahead to uncharted territory each December.
Lost in Sicily said...

Hi Lucia, all I can say is I feel for you and admire you greatly!!!! Also, I really hope to catch up with you soon!!!

Emily said...

oh, that sounds really tough. and especially interesting to me because rowan had his school holiday program a few weeks ago. i was surprised that they sang quite a few christmas songs after not having a halloween party because not everyone celebrates halloween. oh yes, they threw in ONE Hannukah song to make it a "global" celebration, but it just felt like a kind of afterthought. and even though i'm irritated with the school's inconsistency, i have to admit i'd feel a bit sad if they didn't do any christmas things at his school, so hearing your side of it definitely opens my mind some more! the school is trying though, so that's nice. there was also a day this week where they learned all about hannukah and did hannukah activities. i'll be interested to see if they touch on any other religions. is there any of that at noah's school?

anyway, it sounds to me like you are doing a really really good job navigating december!

boatbaby said...

Oy I could write a book about this with you. But first I want to say you articulate it all so beautifully!
As a mama in a mixed faith marriage who grew up in a mixed faith home as wel, I do know what you are going through. My mom was the Catholic and we loved in a VERY Jewish neighborhood, so I always felt the need to hide the Christmas when I was a kid :) In the end, my parents exposed us to both (though my Jewish dad tried harder, I don't think we ever enters a church and we went to synagogue all the time)and they exposed us to other religions too. And they told us spirituality was an individual choice and we were each free to choose. One choose to be Jewish, down to the bar mitzvah, hebrew school, and time living in Israel. One choose to be catholic, though not very religious. And one decided organized religion was not in the cards and is a non-believer for lack of a better description.
Anyhow, I could go on and on, but now in our home we celebrate them ALL, including the winter Solstice. And I too will give my kids the choice. I hope Noah and your family find your tribe out there. But know you are not alone.
:)

boatbaby said...

sorry for all of the bad spelling - nursing bABY and typing is tricky
:)

boatbaby said...

I am bombarding you with comments today. I was trying to remember what we did last year for Hanukkah...
http://zachaboard.blogspot.com/2009/12/weekend-of-light.html

wanted to share :)
This year on the first night we were invited to one of our only other Jewish friends house (also mixed marriage) for a sushi/ Hanukkah. The friend also happens to be our town mayor, so it made a big impression on Zach when all of his friends don't even know what Hanukkah is to see the Mayor do the candles. yay!

Dim Sum, Bagels, and Crawfish said...

Karen, welcome back...yes, lets get together soon!

Emily, interesting to hear how other schools handle the holiday situation. I had a very similar reaction to the fact that our public/military school makes a strong point not to celebrate Halloween to be respectful and yet seems to go way overboard in regards to Christmas. I have been pleased with how respectful and inclusive Noah's class teachers have been for the past two years, but not quite so impressed with larger school functions and the assumption that all kids would be doing Christmas and therefore it is ok to have the kids singing Christmas carols during every music class in December, have them making Santas during art class, etc and most frustrating of all has been the lack of alternatives for those kids who don't feel comfortable doing those activities or the fact that we have to repeatedly address the issue. I have been playing phone tag with the school principal and I am hopeful that future holidays will be treated with a bit more consistency and sensitivity. I don't want to be the Grinch who is trying to steal Christmas, just trying to speak up for my son and other kids who may not feel as included during this time of year. Since we are still fairly new to the elementary school experience and public school, I would be interested in hearing how other schools handle December.

Cindy,
Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences and your thoughts. One of the reasons I keep doing the blogging thing is because I value these kind of exchanges and just to let you know I consider you a part of my on-line tribe :) And I love the story about the sushi/Hanukkah party with the mayor.

I feel a bit sheepish after writing such a long post about this whole topic...because the kids and I just finished watching the Charlie Brown Christmas show. We rarely turn on the tv these days but when we did this afternoon the show was on and brought back such a flood of childhood memories (not the least of which was the extreme excitement that would come from seeing this show only once a year on tv...dvds and videos have really kind of dampened that thrill for modern kids, haven't they?). Good Ole' Charlie Brown was the perfect Christmas show to watch together...able to share a bit of my childhood experiences with them, plenty of good messages to chat about, and a simple presentation of the symbols related to Christmas.

It's not that we don't watch Christmas movies or go to friends Christmas parties. We do. And we do enjoy those, but we have decided it is best for kids to have a very clear understanding about the reasons for different religious holidays and why we celebrate what we do. And here's the real irony, thanks to living in Italy and visiting so many churches, attending Saints festival days, and museums filled with religious art; our Jewish kids are very well versed in the stories of Christianity, not just the hallmark versions of the holidays. I am actually glad for those experiences here in Sicily...just wish we could import some more Jewish families :)

Dim Sum, Bagels, and Crawfish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
likeschocolate said...

I wish I something that could help you out. Our school doesn't celebrate Halloween, but that is just because they try to limit the amount of parties in school. They will have a holiday party, but if I remember correctly my children have come home with dreidels and coins though it is a public school. My children would love to celebrate Hannukah because they love the idea of eight nights of gifts. This has lead to many conversations on the opposite side that we are Christian and not Jewish; however, I have told them it never hurts to learn about other religions. I guess it comes down to talking to your children that every family has it's own traditions. In our family we don't go anywhere on Sunday except to church. No shopping, no birthday parties, but time together as a family. We also don't do sleep overs. That one has been a hard one, but we are sticking to our grounds. We believe no good comes from them. On goes the list. I would just try to stay positive and upbeat and hopefully as your children grow older it will become less of an issue.

Dana said...

Shame on that school. Shame on that principal. There should automatically be alternatives, but, better yet, all groups should be equally represented in the celebrations at this time of year. It's hard to break away from traditions, though. How do you have a December holiday concert without having holiday music? Do we really need one? IS it an expected american school tradition? I think that at our elementary school they've cut out music that is "religious" in nature in favor of songs of Santa and reindeer -- but really, that's not acceptable either, is it? or is it? I don't even know anymore. I hadn't considered that before. Geeesss . . . I feel for you, I do. I do appreciate that you have chosen to speak up both at the school and here in this post. Sorry that you have to bear these conflicts at this time of year . . . .

HAve you seen Karen's post that was coincidentally posted on the same day? Maybe a sign that all will be well . . . if you believe in signs, that is. Get those Legos out, Mamma.
D

Maryam said...

Oh... I don't know what to say... but this post is so meaninful to me. My situation is different, with different religions involved, but still similar. I didn't celebrate Chanukah or Christmas as a kid, but we do now. I come from Sufi Muslims, Christians, and Jews. So I've chosen the interfaith route: Ramadan, Eid, Christmas, Chanukah, Winter Solstice... perhaps because I felt very out of the loop as a kid. But it wasn't bad to be that kid, not at all. That was part of my life, being different, and it still is. I couldn't be normal even if I was trying :) Thank you for posting all of this and for your honesty and for being the clearly very thoughtful and reflective person you are.

Dim Sum, Bagels, and Crawfish said...

Thanks, guys! I appreciate your comments and hearing about your own experiences. Just as an update...I did speak with the school principal and I am hopeful that next December will be treated with a bit more sensitivity at the school.

upatreecupatea said...

I find it crazy that Noah's school is doing so many "Christmas-y" things. NONE of the schools in Duval County I have been to do Christmas things, if the school does a performance all the songs are about winter and spending time together.

It's crazy to be that a DOD school is doing so much Christmas stuff! They need to work on that.

Dim Sum, Bagels, and Crawfish said...

Jo, I know it is a bit crazy, isn't it? I need to send you a nice long e-mail but for now here is a quick note to make you smile. Guess what Noah made for me this Hanukkah? He started saving toliet paper rolls a few weeks ago and he surprised me with my very own yak! He kept saying "I wish Jo could see this!". It really was one of my favorite gifts ever. I promise to e-mail you soon.

Dawn said...

Hi Lucia, Just got a chance to catch up with this post. Fionna had a question today about people who don't celebrate Christmas. We have been reading books about all of the holidays that are celebrated in December so it was easy to talk about people celebrating in different ways and for different reasons. I think since she sees it EVERYWHERE she was having a hard time imagining that there are people out there that are not celebrating the holiday.

We are making small Solstice gifts for our neighbors. It is going to be interesting to see their reaction and how Fionna deals with it. This is a pretty "old school" hood and I think we will be the only ones having a Solstice celebration. I am expecting that it will be a time of education for some of our neighbors.
Thank you for sharing your experience. It is so valuable to share.

Heather in Washington State said...

Our favorite holiday was the year we celebrated several. We're not Jewish, nor are we Christian, but our family is open to celebrating with friends no matter what the faith. We respectfully attend services of different denominations, say prayers along with others, and visit many houses of worship, including Hindu and Muslim. We view religion as we do the world's many languages. No matter how or where you speak to God, He is with you. God is not offended if you are Jewish and standing among Christians. We are all God's children, and I believe He loves us equally, no matter how devoted we are or aren't. Click on my name to read about our multiple holiday celebrations a few years ago.

Marc Alan Di Martino said...

I'm Jewish and my wife's not and we live in Rome. Luckily, we're both secularists, which kind of solves the problem of December for us. Our interpretation is, "These are just things people do for fun in December. The theology behind them is nonsense." That way, there's no competition or anxiety (though there is always anxiety).

Cami said...

That does sound tricky. I think it's wonderful that you have made a decision and are sticking to it--even though it must have been hard for you as well as your kids at times. But I think you were definitely right not to add the secular part of Christmas just to make sure your kids weren't left out. Let's hope there will be easier years than others. Way to be a good advocate for your children!

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