Merry New Year

Merry New Year

A mom uncomfortable with the Christmas-like traditions at her husband's Russian Jewish family New Year celebration wonders if she can stop bringing her kids to their annual get-together. 

Dear Miriam,

My husband and I are both Jewish and very committed to raising our kids with strong Jewish identities. His family is Russian Jewish, and New Year's is a HUGE deal for them, not to be missed for any reason. Their annual New Year's celebration includes "Father Frost," a jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who gives out gifts, and a "New Year's Tree," a large evergreen adorned with ornaments and lights. Hmm, anything sound familiar? Now that my kids are old enough to understand that these traditions are the same things found at Christmas, I am uncomfortable bringing them there for New Year's anymore. My husband argues that the kids won't be confused or think they are celebrating Christmas, and also that his mom would be hurt and shocked if we skipped out. She insists, as does my husband, that this tradition, "has nothing to do with Christmas." What to do?

Merry New Year

Dear Merry,

With the High Holidays and Sukkot on the brain, I have to admit that your New Year's-themed question baffled me at first. I just had a long conversation with my 3 year-old about how we can't talk about Halloween until after Sukkot, so my first comment is, "Don't worry, you have some time!" Of course, time has a funny way of passing when we're not looking, so I understand why this round of Jewish holidays may have you thinking about future celebrations. 

I want to share the advice I usually give to interfaith couples: If you have a Jewish home, don't celebrate Christmas in your home; but if you have non-Jewish relatives, you can celebrate their traditions in their home and just make the distinctions clear to your kids. While yours is not an interfaith family, it is an intercultural one, so I think the same holds true in terms of honoring family and traditions. Father Frost doesn't have to visit your home, but it would be denying your children part of their cultural heritage to keep them away from this family celebration. Plus, it sounds like your in-laws would be mightily insulted by your absence. 

Since the celebration is presumably happening on January 1 and not on December 25, there's already a distinction there for your kids. If, on December 25, you're eating Chinese food and not opening presents, they will know that they don't celebrate Christmas. This could be a lovely opportunity to talk about where traditions come from and why they are important to our families.

Depending on how old they are, the specific confluence of winter icons could open a conversation about how cultures spread. You could do some research together about all the different cultures and religions that have winter holidays involving candlelight. You could talk about gift-giving customs across cultures or food traditions or any number of things that help your kids understand that some traditions are particular to Judaism, some are particular to distinct parts of our families and some are enjoyed by people around us but not in our homes. 

We make choices about particular traditions for any number of reasons: to respect family, to participate in community, because we really enjoy certain foods/holidays/songs…In your case, this type of New Year's celebration is really important to your husband's family and, in turn, it's part of your family experience. You can gripe to your friends about how silly it is that your husband can't admit the similarity to Christmas, but let it drop with him. Since you want your children to have strong Jewish identities, respecting family is a great Jewish value to impart.

Be well,