After our family Thanksgiving, set in the muffling silence of eternal snow in northeastern Pennsylvania, I sent my daughter back to her sunny California college with a care package to remind her of all the Christmases, and all the Hanukkahs, of her childhood. I tucked into her bag an Advent calendar, and tiny Hanukkah presents wrapped in tissue paper, numbered for each of the nights until she comes home for winter break.
As interfaith parents in 21st century America, we have the freedom to choose the labels we bestow on our children. A Jewish and Christian couple may raise children as Jewish, or Christian, or Unitarian-Universalist, or Quaker, or Buddhist, or secular humanist, or interfaith, or on two or more of these pathways simultaneously. No single choice is going to work for every interfaith family.
As an interfaith child who was raised Jewish, I have come to believe that interfaith children know they are interfaith children, no matter which formal religious label we provide for them. In part, this is because interfaith children inevitably experience formative interfaith moments, especially during the holiday season in December, with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. And that’s a good thing.
For me, Hanukkah resonates deeply because I have Jewish family. And at the same time, Christmas resonates deeply because I have Christian family. In raising my children with both family religions, my intent was to give them permission to explore, and feel, and understand both religions, and this time of year, that means participating in both holidays. After experiencing both the “choose one” pathway as a child, and the “choose both” pathway as a parent, my contention is that there is no way to exclusively raise a child with one religion in an extended interfaith family. I agree that for some interfaith families, it makes sense to choose a singular religious label and formal religious education in just one religion. But family is family, and in the end, a claim that we are raising children exclusively in one religion means trying to exclude the emotional weight and sensory memories of the family traditions we experience together.
And so, an interfaith child may be raised with only a Jewish education, but she is still going to smell gingerbread in a grandmother’s kitchen, see the heirloom ornaments sparkling on a cousin’s tree, and feel a thrill when she hears cousins belt out the Hallelujah chorus in Handel’s Messiah. An interfaith child may be raised with only a Christian education, but he is still going to crave Bubbe’s latkes with apple sauce, sense a connection during that one dreidel song at the school holiday concert, and feel a thrill when he hears cousins belt out “tyrants disappearing” while singing around the menorah. Children learn, and form identities, through these experiences as much as through their formal religious educations.
In the coming weeks, in her dorm room thousands of miles away, each day my daughter will open the cardboard windows adorned with faeries and mushrooms on her Advent calendar. And each night she will snap the glow sticks and insert them into her fire-safe, dorm-approved, plexiglass menorah for Hanukkah, emitting a multicolored luminescence. Then, she will sleep in the close and holy darkness, and dream of returning to her extended interfaith family for the final days of both holidays.
Susan Katz Miller, a former reporter for Newsweek and New Scientist, is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. She lives with her interfaith family outside Washington, DC.