When is a Christmas Tree Just a Christmas Tree?


It’s interesting that so many in the Jewish community put an emphasis on Christmas. Specifically, whether or not interfaith families observe Christmas. And the assumption has been that if Christmas is observed, these families couldn’t be raising their kids in a Jewish home. And the focus of these Christmas celebrations has often been the tree.

Two local Jewish community studies (Boston’s from 2005 and New York’s from 2011 (released in 2012)) noted the frequency of interfaith families having Christmas trees. Both studies also noted the lack of data indicating what a Christmas tree means to interfaith families. Wouldn’t you know it? We’ve been asking just that question in our annual December holiday surveys!

To those of you who took our survey in September-October, thanks!

Read on for more about the results of our 9th annual December holidays survey, interfaith families, and the December dilemma:

Contact: Edmund Case, edc@interfaithfamily.com, (617) 581-6805

Interfaith Families Participate in Secular Christmas Activities While Raising Jewish Children

(Boston, MA) — Interfaith families raising their children Jewish are continuing at high and stable levels to participate in secular Christmas activities, to keep their Hanukkah and Christmas holiday celebrations separate, and to believe that their participation in Christmas celebrations does not compromise their children’s Jewish identity. These trends were confirmed in the ninth annual December Holidays Survey conducted by InterfaithFamily, an independent non-profit. The survey examines how interfaith couples raising their children deal with the “December dilemma,” the confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas.

Eighty-three percent of interfaith couples who participate in Christmas celebrations keep them separate from their Hanukkah celebrations, and 80% think that their Christmas celebrations do not affect their children’s Jewish identity. As one family mentioned, “One day out of the year isn’t going to make or break their Jewish identity. It’s how you raise your kids as Jews the other 364 days that counts.”

“Interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas continues to be common,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily. “These families see their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature and not confusing to their children’s Jewish identity. We noted somewhat more Christmas celebrations at home this year, but also more Hanukkah celebrations in the synagogue.”

Some local Jewish community studies (Boston in 2005, New York in 2011) have reported on the frequency of interfaith families having Christmas trees, but acknowledged that the data does not indicate what having a Christmas tree means to interfaith families. The respondents to InterfaithFamily’s survey made hundreds of comments in response to open-ended questions that shed light on precisely that question:

  • Christmas does not have religious significance for many interfaith families who are raising their children as Jews.
  • They primarily are honoring the traditions of their parent and relatives who are not Jewish.
  • Children can understand clear explanations from their parents, such as Christmas is not their holiday.
  • Participating in Christmas celebrations can strengthen children’s Jewish identity by not letting them take it for granted.
  • Jewish identity should be based on positive reasons, not on what people avoid or do not do.
  • Interfaith families raising Jewish children still experience Jews being uncomfortable with their celebrating Christmas and do not appreciate being questioned, censured or shamed.

Some observers of intermarriage have cast a skeptical eye on interfaith families raising Jewish children participating in Christmas activities, arguing that interfaith families can’t impart a strong Jewish identity to their children and celebrate Christmas. The results of InterfaithFamily’s surveys suggest that they in fact are doing so.

This year the percentage of interfaith families raising Jewish children who participate in Christmas celebrations was 83%, the same as last year. These families still make clear distinctions between the holidays and are giving clear priority to Hanukkah over Christmas, as both a family celebration and a religious holiday. The overwhelming majority (98%) celebrates Hanukkah at home, while a little more than half (56%) celebrate Christmas at home.

Hanukkah is much more of a religious holiday for this population than is Christmas. Only 10% attend Christmas religious services and only 3% tell the Christmas story. While slightly more families will give Christmas gifts in their own homes this year (63%) compared to last year (60%), and slightly more (49%) will put up a Christmas tree in their own homes than last year (46%), 88% view their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature.

Many families (73%) celebrate Christmas at the home of relatives, suggesting that Christmas is largely centered on the extended family.

For more information, read the attached report “What We Learned from the Ninth Annual December Holidays Survey.” It also can be found online at: /files/pdf/WhatWeLearnedfromthe2012DecemberHolidaysSurvey.pdf.

About InterfaithFamily
InterfaithFamily is the central web address for people in interfaith relationships interested in Jewish life, with over 640,000 annual unique visitors, growing at 35% a year, accessing both extensive helpful content and connections through a free Jewish clergy officiation referral service, its Network listings, and social networking functionality. Since 2010, InterfaithFamily has provided resources and trainings for clergy, synagogue staff, and religious school and preschool directors and teachers. Our surveys are an excellent source of information on what attracts interfaith families to Jewish organizations. Visit www.interfaithfamily.com/yourcommunity for more information on the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative.


EDITOR’S NOTE: InterfaithFamily has developed a Resource Page for interfaith families dealing with the December holidays that includes resources such as “Handling the December Holidays: Ten Tips from InterfaithFamily.com” and numerous articles that help interfaith families have a more enjoyable and meaningful holiday season. For more, visit www.interfaithfamily.com/decemberholidays.

5 thoughts on “When is a Christmas Tree Just a Christmas Tree?”

  • Malkah Seligman in extending “goodwill” to her non Jewish presumably affinal relatives can hardly have not noticed the ubiquity of Christmas as an institution in the surrounding environment.Malkah seems to be suggesting that acknowledging Christmas is a matter of propriety suggesting that It is good manners to accede to non_Jewish relatives’ expectations.The corollary is that Jews lack civility if they do not kow tow to Christmas and its rituals.What about self identification?What about authenticity?What makes us jewish is the FACT that we do things differently. It is a question of individuality NOT conformityIt is a question of particularity at times like this not universality..NO doubt if Malkah diverges from the preferences of her presumably non-Jewish partner and relatives she will be shunned but at the same time she will be more Jewish. .She will be indulging in divergent rather than convergent thinking and there is a price to be paid in a non-Jewish- Jewish marriage for that. So far it has cost me two marriages..Who wants to be a hostage to commercial Christendom or commercial Channukah for that matter?For the non Jewish partner and family being jewish is irrelevant. What Jews do and have done for millenia is a matter of indifference if it isnt a matter of prejudice or hate. On the other hand Jews should beware of aggravating the sensibilities of Christians..They may not reponsd with the loving kindness you are profffering to them..If this asymmetry doesnt bother you,Malkah then go for it.!Deck the house with holly and forget about sufganiyot . and candles even if this means beocming a doormat at Yuletide celebrations?

  • Interesting data about more interfaith families choosing to have Christmas trees. Do you happen to have any data about whether interfaith families are holding Passover Seders more or less frequently? Just curious. Thanks.

  • We, as Jews, must understand how important Christmas is to our non-Jewish relatives. Hanukah has nothing to do with it. It is an unimportant, non-religious holiday that has been inflated out of all proportion in order to “compete” with Christmas. A child growing up in an interfaith family should be taught that BOTH holidays are his, and should happily celebrate the customs and values that each holiday imparts.
    I know many wholly Jewish families who have Christmas trees. It doesn’t make them any less Jewish, even if they guiltily label their tree a “Hanukah Bush”.
    What’s wrong with celebrating Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men? I have much more of a problem with celebrating Easter than with Christmas.

  • The pressure on Jewish spouses in interfaith marriages to celebrate Christmas with non Jewish in laws is what it is all about.The Christmas Tree mostly signifies the birth of Christ which has no relevance in Judaism or Jewish culture.In my view celebrating Christmas in Jewish households can only lead to confusion and the sending of mixed messages.It constitutes capitulation to social pressure exerted by
    non-jewish spouses, ( partners?) families.rarely will the non-jewish families participate in specifically jewish celebrations. there is NO symmetry.furthermore the level of consckious awareness of what all celebrants are doing is abysmal/There is no good reason at all as to why family and kinship gatheriongs cant n take place outside the chronology of Christmas and Hannukah or why Holiday parties catering to representatives of ALL traditions cannot take place.other than the superficiality and mindlessness of all observances and practices.there is no requirement that non jewish family members familiarise themselves with the meaning and significance of Jewish practices and observances.Propriety is not enough if there is a willed move towards the continuity of jewish generations.The risk for jewish spouses in denying the relevance of christological celebrations is secession by bigoted non jewish partners or spouses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *