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If you come over to the jungalow today, you will find no Christmas tree. Neither will you find a Menorah, a Hanukkah bush, nor one of Kwanzaa’s kinaras. In fact, the jungalow will look as it does on most days–colorful, patternful, a little messy, abundantly jungalicious, but not at all holiday-y.

Let me explain.

I was raised Jewish celebrating Hanukkah and unlike a lot of Jewish friends I had growing up–we didn’t celebrate Christmas at all–we never even had Christmas Tree (or a Hanukkah bush for that matter). Hanukkah was always a favorite holiday of mine–I loved the songs, gambling for chocolates with my siblings with the dreidel, latkes are a fave (my mom makes the yummiest potato pancakes EVER) and, of course, the prezzies. But over the years, I’ve grown to have my own belief system that is more secular than how I was raised. While I celebrate Hanukkah when I’m with my parents, I don’t practice on my own.

This is my first Holiday season as a married woman, as a mom, and the first time I’ve given any thought to how the holidays will be in my family, with my children.

As for my husband Jason, well, he’s an atheist who would happily let the holiday season go by without any mention of Santa, presents, menorahs or twinkle lights (he does love latkes though :P ).
While I still love many of the traditions that I was raised with, and have seriously always wanted a Christmas tree (you know how I feel about indoor plants) it’s December 18th and I still haven’t figured how I want to treat the holidays in my family.

I also have a pretty big problem with how commercialized the holidays have become–nowadays the holidays seem to be all about ipads and xboxes.

All of this is magnified by this other world that I live in–this online design universe where images of the prettiest ornament, the perfect bay-leaf wreath, the best gift, the most exquisit holiday tablescape are ubiquitous.  I feel pressure to be in the holiday spirit, to be sharing my holiday decor, my Chrismukkah menu, my DIY’ed ornaments–but if I did that, at this point, it would be contrived.

I am still trying to figure out what the holidays mean to me now–what traditions I want to pass on to Ida, what stories I want to share with her and what I want to let her discover on her own.  Luckily, she is still young enough that an absence of the holidays in our home this year won’t phase her.

How are the holidays treated in your homes? Are any of you in interfaith families or did you grow up in inter-faith families? How about atheist families? Do you or did you celebrate Christmas / Hanukkah? Do you just treat December 25th as it were any other day?  I would love to hear your stories as it my help me work through some of my questions, fears and feelings.

Images from: Menorah / Ornament  / Tree / Latkes

44 Responses to I feel weird about the holidays this year.
  1. Cas says:

    My boyfriend and I are kid-free atheists, and the 2 couples we’re closest to are atheist parents, and going through very similar situations right now. We’ve gotten them these books for Christmas, in hopes of helping the process of figuring that out along, perhaps they might be helpful to you as well; http://www.parentingbeyondbelief.com/

    Good luck in figuring it out, either way, you have a beautiful home and family, love reading and seeing the things you choose to share with us all.

    Happy December! ;-)

    -Cas

  2. Cas says:

    Oh and also – we do Christmas in our house. I grew up in a pretty secular household, my boyfriend in an Irish catholic one. We kept the tradition of decorating and gift giving, then visit both our families home on Xmas eve.

    We don’t plan on having children, so thankfully its not a very hard situation to figure out for us. Some years we’ll do more, some less. This year I have a table full of decorated mini fake trees, last year I just put some branches in a vase and covered them in lights.

    I say, do what makes ya happy. Little Ida will come to know of different cultures and religions as she grows, and she’ll surely clue you into what she’d like to experience. Kids are funny like that.

    Sorry for the novel, I’ve got a bad case of insomnia.

    Cheers,
    Cas

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think the holidays can be whatever you want them to be. I see no problem with picking the traditions you want to pass on and that you want to enjoy each year, I live in the UK where many people are not practising Christians but do celebrate Christmas. Christmas definitely doesnt have to be commercial- in my partners family we make presents for each other under a strict budget which means that a lot of thought goes into each gift. In my family (now that we are all students) my parents get us things we “need” (but can’t afford) like new clothes or things for the kitchen. I’d like to think that when we start our own family and Christmas traditions we will learn from our parents and their generosity.
    I hope you don’t spend too much time worrying about this as the holidays are meant to be fun and they can be whatever you want them to be.
    Whatever you decided to do I hope you enjoy it.

  4. Katya says:

    I’m not religious (english atheist mother and personally very religious yet non preachy French Catholic Father), my fiancé is loosely religious (Church of England)but that’s more from upbringing than personal belief and my daughter is half Muslim from a non practicing Malaysian family who also celebrate Xmas because my X’s step father is english etc etc… you get the jist – we are a modern family!

    I personally celebrate Christmas for its traditions and because I have so many fond memories from childhood that I want to share with Celeste. My memories are so very precious to me – they make me feel all warm inside, I take example and I feel both humbled and excited by the fact that we’re shaping and contributing to her memories! It’s a big responsibility for sure – but I would say, retain the magic. Retain what you believe has shaped YOU and pass a bit of that down.

    Knowledge and information is what they crave. As Cas has said, children will express their interest as they grow and will also eventually make up their own minds (as you have). My daughter and I have spent a lot of time talking about religion (I’m agnostic…I believe there could be forces at work but don’t buy into organised religion. I do however appreciate some of the heritage inherited from it) discussing bits of christianity, islam aswell as buddhism. Looking up origins of traditions, experiencing Scandinavian and Icelandic rites and histories. It all adds to the wonder. it’s all a celebration of SOMETHING. I spent my highschool years in Canada and had a wonderfully multicultural bag of friends. That’s something I loved. I encountered Jewish families who welcomed me for their hanukkah festivities, Persian families who celebrated both Ramadan and also had a Christmas tree…there was no heavy religious overtone. Just a lot of shared love, joy and excitement.

    Take the Christmas tree – the Christmas tree/holiday tree before the Christians even got a look in, finds its origins in both pagan Europe as well as ancient civilisations who used wreaths, trees or garlands of evergreen to symbolise eternal life. The tree is so important to me and to US – our new family tradition is that we go and ‘hunt’ ours in the local Nursery and Big Man gets to play lumberjack after I’ve spent 2 hours finding JUST the RIGHT shaped evergreen hehe…this is England…it’s COLD at this time of the year. THAT is what i love about the tree, the family experiences we have around it. Each ornament has a history for us, they’re not just bought because they’re pretty (but they are VERY pretty)or in keeping with this year’s mood board. I have ornaments now that used to adorn my childhood Xmas trees. Each year we add one ornament to our growing collection. Some are hand crafted (I have a glitter covered hand print from Celeste when she was only a year old)It’s a family afair :o)

    What i feel is most important is to pass on that little thread of lineage and family tradition down through the generations. Be that through food, through religious rites, through stories or simply through a whole lot of making stuff and partying!!

    It’s not a burden it’s a JOY – there is no wrong answer – no decision that will impact Ida negatively as long as you do what makes your family happy –

    Bonnes Fêtes!!! Katya Xx

    • Katya–thank you so much for this thoughtful reply. My mother-in-law even wrote me an email about this blog-post and in her email she said that ‘that Katya is a smart and loving woman!’ –and I have to agree. this is so thoughtful and insightful–thank you thank you thank you.

  5. I grew up celebrating Christmas with my parents as did my husband with his. Both of us are Wiccan now and celebrate Yule on the 21st of each December. We still celebrate Christmas, though, with our families but from a non-religious aspect.

  6. mari says:

    Christmas is not religious or over the top consumerist in our family, I see it as tradition. My nana was a collector, so it was her chance to bring out all her toys, dolls, and make the whole house a Christmas scene. We also made tamales together and left cookies for Santa. I remember all of that fondly but now it looks very different at our home with my grandparents gone. Now it’s very simple, no big meals because it’s too sad, and this year we might not even give gifts. What I’ve learned, traditions can evolve and that’s ok. Now my sister and I make wrapping paper with stamps we’ve made and stamps in my nanas collection. We needed something new/old and that’s what we came up with!

  7. R says:

    I grew up Muslim in Dubai, where Christmas was celebrated by a minority of expats but felt as a joyous seasonal presence by others — we had Ramadan, and the two Eids, to look forward to ourselves. Dubai is the sort of place that is full of people from elsewhere, whose traditions become important because they are threads to their homes and other lives — but everyone is adaptable, and that’s part of the joy of it. Now I live in New York City and am celebrating my second Christmas ever with my partner. We have a real tree, which is amazing — do you know how good they make your house smell? And to someone who’s never had one, a tree in the house is strange and wonderful. Twinkling lights, colour, warmth, presents that aren’t just impulse buys but are long-thought-out and heartfelt recognitions of our loving relationship — a book he’s wanted for a long time, a trip to DIA: Beacon — we’ve lived like church mice for the last year and it’s been lovely to have this light in the darkness to look forward to. Long-windedly, I’m saying: pick and choose! You’ll figure out what works for you. Latkes and lights and laughter, etc.

  8. Anonymous says:

    We celebrate nature and the solstice…just the turning of the seasons…

  9. Manu says:

    I’m a non practicing catholic and my boyfriend is an atheist, and since we moved in together (6 years ago) we never decorated the house for the holidays. We live in a small apartment and I feel like having the tree and all the ornaments will only add clutter (and where would we store all those things during the rest of the year?); besides, we always spend Christmas somewhere else. But I think we’ll start doing it once we have kids. Besos!

  10. Rose Catron says:

    Hi Justina. I love that you are thinking about this and little Ida. I grew up in a religion free household – my dad grew up Christian but found his own kind of spirituality, and my mom grew up culturally Buddhist but is atheist now. We didn’t even have much of a conversation about our own religion or lack of religion when I was growing up, and my parents put no pressure on me one way or another.

    Since my family owned a retail store, we often had to work around the holidays, and because of that we never had a big extravaganza. We usually just opened one present each, and it was often something practical (much to my chagrin as a child). We didn’t have any traditional foods and we would usually just eat whatever for Christmas day. The great thing about keeping things simple and not having high expectations was that I was never disappointed, and we just celebrated being together.

    When I got married, I gained a family that celebrates Christmas full tilt, with food, presents, decorations, and lots of special meals and traditions. I think it’s lovely, but I also think it’s a lot of work, and that work usually falls on one or two people. It seems kind of stressful.

    Bottom line is – do what makes you and your family happy! My parents and I usually went hiking or cross county skiing together on Christmas day, so we were spending time together, but in a healthy, non-consumerist way. Maybe you could go for a walk through your neighborhood every Holiday season, or do a fun new craft that you have wanted to try, or bake something yummy every year. Or make a family painting that you all work on together, until you have a whole room of holiday paintings!

    • OK–I LOVE the idea of a room full of Holiday Paintings. I think that might be the start of a holiday trad around here–thanks for your thoughtful words–they’ve got mind creative mind churning on some fun and different stuff we can create for our family.

  11. I am a Christian, and my husband and I both were raised so. I too agree that Christmas has become very secular and all about ipads and new cars and spending. This saddens me. I think the most important thing is to have meaning behind your celebrations. Many celebrate the gifts and food of “Christmas” (Christians included) … but they don’t really think about why they are there, or what they are celebrating. Are you a Christian celebrating Jesus’ birth? Or are you a Christian celebrating presents and food and family? Both? Are you a non-Christian who is celebrating the spirit of love and giving?
    So, I guess my point is, I think everyone should do what feels appropriate for their family and their situation, but do it with some meaning. I think that celebrations of selflessness and humanity are appreciated no matter who is on the giving end or the receiving end.
    Although I am Christian, I struggle daily with the concept of organized religion, because it all too often becomes about rituals and judgment, and self-righteousness. From reading your blog, it seems that you have a kind soul, and I think your daughter will appreciate and soak that up more than what “holiday” is being celebrated. As she grows, she will form her own opinions, and she will likely remember and adore that you taught her love, most importantly, and not what is right or wrong.
    Thanks for posting.

    • I really agree about doing things with meaning–I think that is a big reason why I had this conflict in the first place–I didn’t want to be superficial and just celebrate for the sake of celebrating–I was (am) searching for meaning…and thanks also for the part about :”..she will form her own opinions…” and you are so right.

  12. onepartgypsy says:

    I’m with you! I was raised jewish and channukah was always about the stories and the food, not the gifts. But after my dad, a rabbi, died when I was 19, I’ve had a hard time keeping traditions going.

    My (catholic raised but now atheist) fiance and I got our first tree together this year though and i must say it’s been making me pretty happy! I always loved the twinkling white lights which we weren’t allowed in the house as they were “christmas lights.”

    Overall i feel the holidays should be about doing whatever makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, regardless of religion. Keeping the traditions alive that make you smile and letting go of those that don’t.

    Right now I dont feel motivated to ring-lead jewish traditions but i think once we have children it will be more important. I have such happy memories of harmonizing Chanukah prayers and id love to carry those on. xx

  13. Cathy says:

    Like onepartgypsy, I’m Jewish. My husband was raised Catholic, but jokingly says that now he’s “Druish.” We’re raising our kids Jewish, but for the holidays, we mix it up. We observe Hanukkah at home and with my family, but we also have a tree (Christmas, pagan or just for the jungaliciousness of it)and celebrate with my husband’s family. Luckily, both sides keep it pretty low-key. It’s more about spending time together, and enjoying some good food, than over-the-top shopping/gifting/decorating.

    Even with that, I’ve been drawn to making it even lower-key this year. We brought out all the menorahs (kids make a lot of them over the years), but didn’t put out anything else. And on Sunday, after Hanukkah was over, I couldn’t wait to put it all away. My husband’s family tradition was to get their tree on Christmas Eve (probably to save money), but it’s become our tradtion, too. Since we keep up twinkly lights year ’round, that doesn’t change.

    My suggestion is to do what feels right to you, and you can’t go wrong. Eat latkes, light some candles–for all the holidays or just because, sing songs (even as a Jew, I love the old, schmaltzy Christmas carols)or listen to something peaceful, and maybe do that one thing as a little family that feels special (and spiritual) to you. Maybe celebrate the Winter Solstice this year, or eat Mayan food in a fun nod to the end of the Mayan long-count calendar.

    I do understand how conflicted you might feel about consumerism. I manage a gift boutique, but the one book I return to year after year is “Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping” by Judith Levine. (I have to hide it when I’m in the shop.)

    No matter what you do, take time to enjoy your family. Maybe all you really need this year is a good snuggle on the couch!

  14. Nicole says:

    I am newly agnostic, formerly an evangelical fundamentalist, and my husband is a very liberal Christian. I use to uber spiritualize Christmas. I also have been a foster parent to three siblings for over a year and we adopted them last month. We are celebrating the non-religious aspect of Christmas. Togetherness, good food and some presents. Not overly commercial because we are on a tight budget so there will never be an emphasis on presents, but I’m sharing the delight of a 3, 4 and 5 year old in Santa and a couple of presents. We likely will explain to them Santa is mythology anyways, but a fun one. Conversations will come up around devoutly Christian family and friends about the “reason for the season” and we will address each situation as it comes. I will educate my children about all holiday traditions of all faiths, and not feel obligated to celebrate any of them in any particular way in our Humanist home.

  15. Tonia B. says:

    No matter what a persons religious background is or lack there of, as long as there is lots of love and peace. You and your husband will create your own family traditions with Miss Ida. You’ll work it out over time, like you said she doesn’t no the difference now anyway.

  16. I admire clever ideas for christmas decorating and I think it’s nice to see houses and the city lit up with twinkly lights. Our boat only has some fairy lights up and some cardboard decorations hanging around that my daughter has made. It’s funny, since we’ve moved onto the boat, the need to have ‘things’ has kind of gone really. On the topic of faith, I find it interesting the different celebrations for different religions but I prefer to watch and observe out of curiosity. ( I feel uncomfortable about the whole santa thing….we tell our kids to not lie?

    Sarah

  17. susan says:

    I have been struggling with this as well…not sure what we will do. Luckily we have time to figure it out before they need to know anything. I grew up Catholic with heavy emphasis on the religious reasons for the holiday, but also on Santa. I believed SO devoutly in both God and Santa, that I was devastated to learn Santa had been a falsehood pushed by my parents for so many years. (They did it with great detail-letters, soot footprints, cookie crumbs, the whole nine). I also am a non-believer now, so things have really changed. While I have very fond memories of the “magic” of Christmas, I am thinking we can do it without Santa. I want them to embrace the spirit of the season, not the presents and commercialized stuff, like you said. It’s tough being a parent, right?! ;)

  18. GB says:

    So. My husband and I are Indian, but with different religious backgrounds–I grew up in a very secular Sikh( a minority in India, less than 2% of the population) home–my mom practices while my dad is an atheist (though he maintains all cultural identities of the sikhs: the turban, the language etc. and never imposes his views on anyone). I’m agnostic and I respect all religions; however, preachy types and fanatics bug and scare me.

    My husband is a practicing hindu and very secular in his beliefs as well. We have one child and we haven’t really been very emphatic about religious observance in our house. For us it is more important to raise a child with a good value system than put a name or boundaries to it. We try to celebrate all festivals that held importance to us as children, religion/faith may or may not be part of the celebration. While growing up, I studied in catholic schools (in India) and some of my best friends are catholic. We celebrated christmas and observed Easter with them (Easter isn’t about bunnies, it is a very solemn festival!) and so once we moved to N. America and had a child, it was never a huge stretch for us to include Christmas, thanksgiving and Easter (the chocolate bunny version!) in our repertoire. we now have jewish friends too, and this year my son has been playing the dreidel with his jewish best friend. It’s all good, as far as we’re concerned. We’re all human, and as long as the basic goodness is in place, nothing else really matters does it?

    Hopefully when he’s older my son can choose his faith (or not) and his cultural ties for himself. He will be Indian, but he will be equal parts American as well. We try not to impose any edicts on him—he’s got so much to see, to learn, to enjoy, he can grow at his own pace, be his own person.

    Wow. that was a long comment! Thanks for listening. :)

    and, happy holidays!

    • Cas says:

      My goodness, I adore your story! That is one well-rounded household you’ve got. My parents raised me similarly, I love all the blending of cultures and traditions, I think its beautiful. Well done!

  19. coral says:

    My husband complains every year about the commercialization of Christmas, the xboxes, etc. and I really believe it is what you make of it. If that sort of stuff disgusts you (it does me) just avoid big box stores and do your best to ignore it in others. I have a 2 yr old growing up in a religiously ambiguous house and we celebrate hope, peace, and magic this time of year, those sorts of things that are innate in little ones but we lose as we grow up. We do that through sparkly decorations, foods and baking that are only made once a year, modest gift-giving emphasizing homemade, knocking on our neighbors doors with plates of baked goods, family and friends get-togethers. Every single time my daughter walks into the living room and sees the christmas tree she stops and whispers “Ohhhhh, Woooooow!” That’s all that is important to me. :)Also, tomorrow’s winter solstice, a day deserving quiet festivities no matter your religious beliefs!

  20. Hayley says:

    Since so many design/ lifestyle bloggers are of the Christian/ Mormon tradition it is refreshing to see one without the big Xmas countdown.

    I was also raised Jewish and am still very culturally Jewish, not spiritually. My daughter’s father is not religious but comes from a big Greek orthodox/ mixed Christian family. So for my daughter she gets the Jewish traditions with mama and one set of grandparents, and the big ol’ traditional Xmas with daddy and the other set of grandparents. Basically she gets a lot of gifts and chocolates.

    For me, the holidays are less about being religious/ spiritual, and more about creating lifelong traditions that she will remember and pass on.
    As a Jew, I do get jealous of all the pretty Xmas stuff, trees, wreaths, lights, etc. and it is pretty cool that I can do that stuff [without feeling like I am cheating] with my daughter.

    Option 3 is also to celebrate the solstice- get a solstice tree and lights. That would be a beautiful tradition to start with your daughter.

    We also just picked up this book: Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama – a children’s book about blending the two traditions: http://www.amazon.com/Daddy-Christmas-Hanukkah-Mama-Selina/dp/0375860932/ref=la_B001JRRHV8_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1356030267&sr=1-1

    Cheers!

  21. Bubbie says:

    holiday decor.
    I became very aware in der Schweiz that most of our Jewish and christian holidays are seasonal agricultural festivals with pagan roots to the rituals, overlaid with Jude’s-christian historical stories…so, living in a country with seasons, I learned to decorate and feed with attention to season. In winter I gathered pine branches and put them on all the windowsills and dotted them with oranges with cloves stuck in for good smells. We also did lots of candles and twinkly lights to brighten the dark cold time. Center pieces everywhere were mandarinli and peanuts scattered together, and of course gathering around the table for hot fondue or raclette. Mulled wine or spiced apple juice, etc. Smells, lights and bells.

    I also changed the comforter covers and table cloths, and sometimes pillows or throws, based on the season, with warm autumn colors…burgundies, rust, deep oranges in fall…pastels in spring, and white for summer.

    In early spring I did bare branched pussywillows and empty apple tree branches and watched them for signs of blooming. Later in spring, daffodils. I never did asparagus or strawberries till the local ones were in season, etc. and then just filled up with spargel rissotto, and spargel pasta and spargel dipped in myriad sauces and rhubarb in dishes or in pies every night

  22. I’m Jewish, my husband was raised Catholic but no longer practices any religion. I made the decision to raise our two daughters Jewish, for a variety of reasons but my husband has nostalgic attachments to Christmas, so we light a menorah at Chanukah with a few gifts for the kids. We have a small Christmas tree, I have stockings for the first time this year and we do one large gift per kid plus a few small things like pjs, slippers, board game. Since my husband is Puerto Rican, I’m making Christmas Eve dinner. It doesn’t have to be a big deal if you don’t want it to be. I think the first thing is to think about what kind of spiritual guidance you want to provide for your children, what kind of rituals and traditions you want to carry on, and start small. If Chanukah is your favorite holiday, then do the menorah and the latkes, etc. If you want to do gifts, keep them small/homemade/practical. There’s nothing wrong with experiencing the joy of giving and getting gifts. Just keep it in perspective. This is the first year we are doing major gifts because we have a bit more money this year, and the kids are old enough to ask for specific things.

  23. Yetunde says:

    Can I just say how happy I am to have found your blog?!?!
    I feel like you are me in a parallel universe! I’ve really enjoyed looking around here, and plan to make it a regular stop.
    Anyway, my 2 cents to your dilemma.
    I was raised christian most of my life but I never really embraced it. I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief long enough to embrace everything I was being told. Lemme tell ya, that makes for some uncomfortable conversations with my Nigerian family because Nigerians are a super religious (read, christian) bunch.
    My Latino husband was raised Catholic, but left that behind too. When we met he was Agnostic, but in the last few years, he has embraced his Atheism. He is also a historian who pulls no punches when it comes to debating history, politics and religion. I’m quieter with my beliefs or the lack thereof. We have 3 kids ages 11, 9, and 6. Before the kids he was militantly against doing any holidays. I wanted to, participate just because I wanted to go along with the rest of the world. Over the last few years, he has mellowed out a lot…he even buys christmas and allows christmas trees in the house. Ironically, I find that I’m the one who’s not really into it. I thought I’d be all into the decorating etc, but that has not turned out to be the case. I do it for the kids, but I’m not as into it as I thought I would be.
    The way we see it, life is short too short to make bones about everything. The kids are exposed to beliefs outside our home, and they want to participate too, so we let them. We don’t observe any spiritual practices, but if they want to, we fully support them. It’s ultimately up to them what beliefs they do or don’t want to practice and they will make that decision when they are ready. For now, they understand how we feel, but we they understand that if they want to go to church or anywhere else, we will make it happen for them.

  24. Jessica says:

    Both my parents are jewish but I was not raised religious at all. We would light the menorah and say the prayer (as for me, as a kid, my goal was to see how fast I could recite it. Almost like a game.) we opened presents but it was never over the top. We also celebrated Easter and Christmas…according to my mother, “because it was fun.” We used all holidays as an excuse to have fun and celebrate, without making any specific one an all-out affair or a burden.

    Now pregnant, with my first child, it is one thing I would like to carry over from my childhood. I remember feeling so special and lucky as a kid that I got to celebrate everything! As I’ve grown older I find myself getting in the spirit even more of decorating, making latkes, helping prepare a Christmas meal, sitting by the twinkle of the tree. Ironically, my mom has pretty much stopped celebrating anything. I think a child helps bring out the wonder of the holidays. The key is not getting sucked into the grandeur and commercialism of it all and making sure you and your family enjoy yourselves.

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