It’s the most wonderful time of the year: time to hang up the stockings, decorate the tree, participate in the church Christmas Pageant, light the menorah and fry up some potato latkes. In other words, it’s the season to confuse my children.
“Mom, what religion are we?” my 7-year-old son asked the other day, after we’d spent the weekend Christmas caroling and attending Pageant rehearsals, and the past hour picking out a new menorah that would hopefully do a better job of keeping the candles upright and avoid burning down our house.
Before I tell you how I answered my son’s question, let me just say how proud I am that I’ve continued one of my greatest family traditions: raising confused children. You see, both of my parents were Jewish. I attended Hebrew school, had a Bat Mitzvah, and continued a religious education at my Reform temple through 10th grade. Our house also sported the largest Christmas tree in the neighborhood, and my mother threw an annual tree trimming party where she and her friends decorated every available pine needle on the tree, while listening to Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel and consuming my mother’s melt-in-your-mouth linzer cookies. My mother’s whole side of the family was German Jewish, and her family had always had their “Tannenbaum“, dating back to their days in the old country. For my mother, a Christmas tree was part of her German Jewish family heritage. If she was ever challenged on how she could be Jewish and have a Christmas tree, she always responded that Christmas trees were originally a pagan tradition. To my knowledge no one ever took this claim to its logical conclusion by asking whether this meant she was in fact trying to raise her children as Druids. Oh yeah, and in case you’re wondering, we also got Easter baskets (although we never actually put chocolate easter bunnies at the Seder table, something I understand some other branches of my family did).
Fast forward to today: for a variety of personal reasons, I decided to raise my own children Christian, and eventually to be baptized. I am now actively involved in my church, and our whole family attends church and Sunday school almost every week. Yet, just as my mother held on to her family’s Christmas traditions, I want to pass on my traditions to my children. This is perhaps even more important to me since my mother, with whom I was very close, passed away almost fourteen years ago before my children were born. During this festive holiday season, I honor my mother’s memory not just by decorating our oversized Christmas tree well beyond the point of good taste, but also by lighting the Hanukkah candles and serving latkes to my children.
So how did I answer my son’s question? I told him that they were being raised Christian, but with an appreciation and connection to their Jewish heritage. I have no confidence that this dispelled any of his confusion. But when it comes right down to it, perhaps in matters of faith confusion is inevitable. After all, isn’t it more appropriate to be somewhat confused, and questioning, regarding subjects that are so fundamental but about which there can be no hard proof or final answer?
I guess this means that I will continue to confuse my children through the years (just wait – Easter and the Passover seder are right around the corner!) But in what matters most – I know that they are not confused. They know how much they are loved. They know that they should love others, and treat others, the way they wish to be loved and treated. And hopefully when they grow up and meet the love of their lives – whether that person is Christian, Jewish, Muslim or yes, even Druid, they will find a way to pass on to their children this great family tradition of confusion. On that note, I wish you a very Merry Chrismukkah, and to all a good night.