Our December Dilemma

An Interfaith Marriage Story

© Photo courtesy of Jon Sweeney

6 min read
Rabbi Michal Woll

When we were writing a book together, a decade ago, about our interfaith marriage, the publisher insisted we have a chapter on “The December Dilemma,” because that is the time of year when people talk about how difficult it is to navigate a family comprised of Jews and Christians both. 

We resisted, until we gave in. 

It is true that it can be challenging to address the demands of competing faith traditions, especially when the broader culture suggests that December is the primary time when faith enters into our lives. But our take on the so-called December dilemma is different from some others’. 

When Thanksgiving rolls by, we face certain problems, but not because the upcoming season is the only time when religious symbols and celebrations are near the center of our lives. We tend to be religiously active and engaged throughout the year. 

Instead, we face a couple of other dilemmas. First, how do we disengage from the prevailing culture of materialism and excess that characterizes this season? Second, how do we thoughtfully connect with our extended families, who may be celebrating a different holiday? And yes, sometimes these two dilemmas end up juxtaposed with each other, which can create the most awkward scenario of all.

To the first dilemma, Black Friday has darkened the whole enterprise of the December holidays. In our home, we struggle not to have our passion for faith zapped before Thanksgiving ever arrives. Sometimes we simply want to hide inside with our computers and phones closed, and the TV unplugged.

Thanksgiving used to be Jon’s favorite day of the year, a time to get together with beloved family rarely seen, and Jon’s family had a knack for doing it well: eating traditional dishes, football in the backyard, celebrating life with extended family, and toasting God with gratitude. He looked forward to it every year, and always returned home afterwards refreshed and renewed.

But these days it is hard to finish your pumpkin pie before the gift buying begins, as some stores don’t even close for that one day, or re-open before the coffee turns cold. At the Thanksgiving table, now, we often find ourselves surrounded by conversations about which stores people plan to hit and in what order. “Wait, I’ll look it up,” someone inevitably says, and sure enough, the big-ticket sale items have changed, ever-responsive to our clicking and looking.

It can easily feel like buying stuff we don’t really need has become the real December religion, regardless of your tradition of origin. We spend and spend, and if we don’t, we are accused by family or friends or colleagues of being scrooges or secretly unhappy. 

The recent merging of Hanukkah and Christmas is surely another symptom of this trend. Over the last half-century, Hanukkah has transformed from a minor holiday to a major celebration that can successfully compete with Christmas. It was once the case that Jewish children learned otherwise at home in December, but now, for the majority of Jewish parents and Jewish children, celebrating Christmas and celebrating Hanukkah have become pretty much the same thing. Only the garland in Jewish homes might have sparkling little Stars of David on it.

There are still problems for people of faith who are not Christian in December, feeling assaulted by carols and pageants and the like—but, most of all, they are assaulted these days by “Christian” things that only skim along the surface. 

The real religious minority at this time of year may have shifted from the non-Christians forced to endure public Christianity through calendar, symbol, and song to those, Christian or Muslim or Jewish or whatever, who are religiously and spiritually engaged

There are those of us who want to rethink this whole time of year, to not just bring it back to sanity, but to reimagine our celebrations almost completely.

For Jews, this can mean simplifying Hanukkah once again, returning it to the observance of a miracle that it once was, complete with games and gelt, but without the Christmas trappings. Some in the Jewish community, for instance, have long made it a habit of serving or delivering Christmas meals to those in need, or working in hospitals, public safety departments, and other settings that never close in order to let their Christian colleagues or other coworkers who wish to have a holiday.

For Christians, this rethinking can mean rediscovering the meaning of the season by focusing on the themes of Advent. Lasting for four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, Advent is about counting the days and reflecting as we wait for God in our lives, as we look for God who wants always to be among us. This is an opportunity to renew our commitments to faith, giving, and kindness, putting aside the commercial build-up and acquisition of presents—or, at least, greatly diminishing its importance, to make room for other activities. 

The original Saint Nicholas was a fourth-century Greek-speaking bishop who lived in what is today Turkey. He actually did go around distributing gifts to needy children, often giving secretly so as not to be noticed, perhaps even—yes, it is true—dropping gifts down family chimneys! For families that want to revalue Christmas along these lines, Christmas morning may still involve gifts, but the celebration of what is received might be more in balance with what the kids have themselves learned to give. 

It would be wonderful if we could teach our kids to give, more than to receive.

We do our best in December, as a family, to be generous to people around us, focusing often on those we do not personally know. There is definitely more that we could do. 

Our interfaith marriage does not translate into interfaith religious celebrations. Jon is frequently found in synagogue, but Michal doesn’t usually feel comfortable in church, and that’s fine with both of us. We know that we don’t need to be sitting beside each other in order to be connected. 

You will find Jon at midnight mass on Christmas Eve, where he loves the reverent quiet, compared to Sunday mornings. He is probably thinking about the medieval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, who once said in a Christmas sermon, “If the birth of God doesn’t happen in me, what good is it?” Which basically means, how will it shape my life? 

And you’ll find Michal on Christmas Day leading a synagogue group that cooks and serves the homeless their noonday meal at the St. Vincent de Paul Center.

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.

Jon M. Sweeney, the editor of Living City, is married to Rabbi Michal Woll, who leads Congregation Shir Hadash in Milwaukee, where Jon and Michal live together with their daughter, Sima.