Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Forging New Family Traditions

A version of this article was cross-posted at the Fifty-Percenters, where I write about my experience with Judaism as the the child of an interfaith marriage.  This particular post examined holiday traditions in the context of my upcoming marriage, so I thought I'd bring the discussion over here too. 

Although Jason and I have spent the holidays together for the last several years, this is the first time we've been welcomed as family and not as the significant other.  It's a small but critical shift and, along with all the general holiday pressures and craziness that arises, it's made me really stop and think about the holiday traditions we're starting to build together, as we work through this process of marriage.   For us, the holidays are in some ways simple.  Although we're both Jewish, my mother was born Catholic. Therefore, we can do Christmas with my parents and Thanksgiving with his, eliminating any tension related to the whose-family-this-year issues.  But it's been difficult too, since I'm committing to building a Jewish life with Jason while also struggling to understand where my cultural history and rituals fit in our new family context. 

Christmas is, without doubt, the most important holiday in my family's Jewish home.  Since one mistaken attempt at dragging her whiny six- and eight-year-old children to Midnight Mass, my mother has never looked at Christmas as a religious occasion.  For her, it's been the last remaining cultural connection to her Scottish Catholic upbringing. Although we complain about the Christmas tree every year (shopping, stringing lights, and getting the ornament boxes out of the garage are a huge hassle) no one complains about the time we spend unwrapping ornaments together as we decorate. Every family member has a box of ornaments that trace the history of our lives, starting from my parents' first Christmas together in 1976.  As a kid, my annual ornament-gift was a lot less exciting than the toys under the tree but now, it's my favorite part of the holiday.  I look back at my Aladdin ornament - when Aladdin was my favorite Disney movie and I was constantly harassing my parents with solo renditions of "A Whole New World" - and at my angel handcrafted by female artisans in Kenya  - from my semester of study abroad in Kenya - and I can't help but cherish my family, our stories, and this annual ritual of sharing.

Like any good Jewish family, food rituals take center stage at our Christmas celebration. On Christmas eve, we eat spaghetti carbonara, a throwback my my mother's Italian Catholic grandfather and the rituals he brought with him to Scotland (yeah, my family was multicultural before multicultural was cool. And I haven't even started telling you about my Dad's side). On Christmas morning, we have eggs benedict, because it's my mother's favorite food and this is really her day.  And for Christmas dinner, we wear the paper crowns from our Christmas crackers (purchased at the Scottish import store) and have a uniquely American prime rib dinner with our close family friends. (The next day we all complain loudly about still feeling stuffed as we promise to keep various New Years weight loss resolutions.)

As my partner and I navigate what it means to build a Jewish marriage and life for our own home, we've been learning about each others' family rituals and traditions, both secular and religious. We know we don't want Christmas in our own Jewish home, but we truly love having Christmas with my parents. Thinking about a far-off future that doesn't include an annual reading of The Night Before Christmas or a tree that honors our ornaments and our lives pains me.  So I'm already thinking about how to incorporate my Christmas traditions in a way that honors the heart of that celebration - family and ritual - in our long-term Jewish home.  Instead of Chinese food and movies on Christmas eve, our Jewish home will have ornaments (perhaps even on a tree), Christmas crackers, and spaghetti carbonara made with turkey bacon.  I'll tell my children stories about Scotland and we'll read an as-yet-unknown alternative to The Night Before Christmas before they go to bed.  I want to build a home that values our unique histories, that ties us to our past, and that places us firmly in our chosen present and our chosen religion. And so, as we think about marriage and the new traditions we're forging, I'm choosing traditions that root me to my mother, to Scotland, and to the rituals that I love.


  1. I love this.

    One of the ways I knew my guy was the one was when he spent christmas with my family last year and they treated him as if he had always been there. I love the transition from boyfriend to family member. It makes it all feel that much more real.

  2. Ohhh, traditions. There is so much value to passing them down, and to making them your own. It's been exciting for me to pick which of my family's traditions I want to continue. (Aside: I got a new ornament every year too! I love looking through that box.)

    Beautiful post.

  3. Love this post, I feel like it was written for me and my fiance.

    I think this is the beauty of inter-faith, inter-cultural weddings. Having an open dialogue with one another of acceptance. Learning about another culture and incorporating the values from each culture into your own family and having your own traditions and values. It's a beautiful thing.


I love active conversations, including (civil) disagreement. I don't love spam or people who use internet anonymity to be rude and disparaging. Spam and rudeness will be deleted.