Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Kosher Christmas

Juggling two religions during the Christmas/Hanukkah period always demands a certain amount of mental acrobatics, and this year was no exception. There seem to be as many ways of coping as there are people dealing with the issue, so I thought I’d kick-start my return to the blogging world with an attempt to describe how we do it. (I wrote this several weeks ago, but never got around to posting it)

S was born into a completely Jewish family and grew up in London with regular attendance at a Reform synagogue. His primary school was Church of England, but I don’t get the impression that was particularly confusing since home was pretty unambiguous.

My background is very different. I grew up in an area that is almost entirely white and Christian (lapsed or otherwise) or atheist, with no experience of anyone who didn’t at least fall into one of the latter two categories. My family went to church every week, and we celebrated Christmas as a religious festival as well as a cultural one.

As I grew up, of course, I started to meet a few people who were different, and at the age of 14 my journey towards Judaism began. I’m still going through the formal conversion process, but I now consider myself to be Jewish, and S and I have built a Jewish home together.

Some people feel that all facets of any former faith should be abandoned when the decision is made to convert, but I find this view simplistic. When I first left Christianity I turned my back on it completely in order to create the distance I needed to work out what to do next. Eight years later my sense of identity as a Jew-by-Choice is strong enough for me to be confident about exploring Christianity from a different perspective, and starting to let those aspects I find meaningful back into my life without worrying that this will somehow undermine my faith.

However, I decline to ignore Christmas for very different reasons. I don’t find it religiously meaningful; at the same time, my upbringing makes it impossible for me to see the festival in a purely secular light. We take part in my family’s celebrations because they take part in ours. They have been to shul with us, to Shabbat meals, Passover seders and Hanukkah candle-lighting. They have asked questions, taken part, and bent over backwards to accommodate beliefs and practices that seem very strange to them. Their attitude throughout has been one of love and respect, coupled with a real desire to learn. I feel very strongly that it would be deeply wrong not to at least try to approach them with the same consideration, and being with them over Christmas seems a small thing to do in return.

And so we went to my parents’ house on Christmas Eve and put up the decorations together. The following morning, each person had a stocking to open, and then my family headed off to church. S disappeared to the care home he runs to dress up as Father Christmas and distribute presents to all the residents, and I had a nice relaxing morning reading a book and keeping an eye on the contents of the oven.

Christmas dinner was a test of our growing kashrut observance. My mum tends to use alternatives to dairy products when cooking anyway, following many years with a serious intolerance to dairy, so there were no hidden ingredients to trip us up. Rice cream was provided to go with the Christmas pudding, and we carefully declined the cheeseboard at the end. While it took a certain amount of thought, we felt much better for having made the effort. Kashrut is a constant reminder of G-d’s presence, even in mundane activities like eating. Surrounded by Christmas decorations, this little achievement made us feel just a bit less overwhelmed.

As the sun went down, S and I set up our menorah in the window of my parents’ living room. My dad and brother stood with us as we read some meditations from the siddur, recited the blessing, and lit the candles. We both felt a little self-conscious, but I was glad we’d done it. The other members of the family present had watched us from a distance, and began to ask questions. My dad asked to see the siddur, and spent some time reading the Hanukkah section. It wasn’t a perfect balance, but Hanukkah is not a major festival, so it would be silly to try and make it into a Christmas substitute. We were never going to feel entirely comfortable, but neither will my family ever feel completely at home at a seder. What is important is that we keep the channels of communication open, so that we at least understand one another.

Over here in the UK it is virtually impossible to escape Christmas completely. I love the traditional side, making mincemeat and Christmas puddings months in advance, everyone giving presents to everyone else, spending time together as a family, the ritual of decorating the house and the tree with ornaments that each have years of memories attached. What I do not love is Christmas decorations appearing in the shops in early September, and having to listen to appalling seasonal croonings everywhere I go for three months preceding 25 December. As far as I’m concerned, Christmas shouldn’t figure until after Bonfire Night (5 November).

That’s not to say that I think Christmas should be removed from public life altogether. Unlike the US, Britain makes no attempt to present itself as a secular society, and I completely agree with this approach. Here we have a state religion, the Church of England, which came into being in its present form during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603) as a compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism. Our laws and political structures are rooted in this moderate form of Christianity, and the Church plays a prominent role in everyday life. Many primary schools (almost all in some rural areas) are affiliated with the C of E, and all schools are required to have a daily ‘act of worship’. This is C of E unless the school is affiliated with another denomination or religion, though non-C of E kids can be withdrawn at their parents’ request (Jehovah’s Witnesses usually are, for example).

I don’t see this as in any way unfair to children with different religious backgrounds. It is important to acknowledge other beliefs, and children here are increasingly being taught about other faiths, but whether the Church of England is the official religion or not, Anglican Christians will still be the religious majority in the UK. My own feeling is that it is more important that we have some sort of religious frame of reference, otherwise how can we hope to be able to relate sensitively to others? Surely a set of strongly-held religious beliefs makes it easier to relate to others with different, but equally strongly-held, convictions and practices. Most (if not all) religions advocate a way of life, not just an hour a week private event like some sort of slightly dubious hobby that should be kept well away from public life.

I don’t mind being in a minority. To be honest, being a practicing Anglican in the small village school I attended put me in a very definite minority, a situation which exactly didn’t change for the better in secondary school. I am happy with my choices and comfortable talking about them – I do not need them to be somehow legitimised by a large number of people sharing them. I hope my children have the confidence and open-mindedness to find their own beliefs too, whether they be mine or not. If they choose a different path, I hope I will have the strength and the tolerance to give them the support my parents have given me.