(Photo/Pixabay CC0)
(Photo/Pixabay CC0)

Objections to my advice for a son who doesn’t want to do Christmas

Readers contacted me with three very different responses to my Oct. 22 advice to the son who wanted help telling his Christian parents that he would not be celebrating Christmas anymore. It is valuable to reflect on their concerns.

Let me begin with a recent letter to J. The writer was troubled that I “accepted the son’s assertions that he could not celebrate Christmas in any capacity” and suggested that I should have helped him find nonspiritual ways to spend Christmas with his parents.

In the case of such an inquiry, I always begin the conversation by listening. What is it that the person is seeking in coming to me? The son did not ask me how to have Christmas with his parents; he asked me how to speak to them about his desire to no longer observe it. Yes, we talked about why he felt the way he does, but I did not try to change his mind. He has the right to believe what he does. Had he asked for help in figuring out how to have Christmas in a Jewish home or away from home, we would have talked about that.

The letter-writer’s response is a very familiar stance in liberal, Jewish interfaith work. Her reduction of Christmas to a simple, nonspiritual gathering of family does not accurately represent those who celebrate it and those who don’t. Research shows that Christmas does indeed have an impact on the children who are raised celebrating it — including celebrating it at a relative’s home. In my own research with adults from interfaith homes, I have heard a tremendous range of feelings about the holiday.

If Christmas weren’t so important, we wouldn’t be talking about it. But it is.

For many Americans it is the pinnacle of the year. Why are there more suicides at this time of year? Because of the enormous expectations that this day is supposed to fulfill. Christmas is the most complex American holiday, and I have seen it observed — or not observed — in hundreds of ways. The solution to “what to do about Christmas” should be shaped to the members of the family asking the question. There simply is no one-size-fits-all.

The writer’s approach is mainstream American liberalism, but with a Jewish twist. Many Jews want to be seen as open, welcoming, loving diversity and embracing of difference. But in the quest to be seen as they see themselves, they hasten to an answer that puts them in the best light in their own eyes, not the answer that is best for the searcher.

Accepting diversity would mean accepting this man’s desire not to celebrate Christmas. Not accepting it means wanting to change him to the “correct” way of thinking.

Christmas will affect every member of the man’s family, even if they don’t go to his parents’ home. When working with interfaith couples, it is vital that the individuals put their well-being first.  This season is only the beginning of an ongoing journey of negotiation and communication. We well-meaning Jews must stop putting our angst before the needs of the interfaith family.

This was not the only person who found my answer wanting. I received a private letter very kindly telling me that I had failed to see the “other side.” This parent said, “Dawn, what if his parents cannot forgive him as I can’t forgive my children? He needs to be prepared for this to sever their relationship.”

Occasionally I am approached by people who simply cannot accept the choices that members of their families make. The son in my column has religious Catholic parents; it is possible that they will turn his decision into a reason to reject him.

Usually the passage of time eases the anger and pain, and families are able to repair the rift. But let’s be honest, sometimes divides are permanent.

To my private writer: If even after some time this son tells me that his parents cannot accept his decision, I will recommend that he acknowledge their choice and move on with his life. Yes, it will hurt, but you can’t force people to believe as you do. You know this quite well.

Finally, I got this anonymous short note: “This is one of your best answers ever! Excellent advice.” Thanks! I hope you are saying this because you agree that the best way to be helpful to couples is to begin by listening.

Folks, Christmas is huge. It just is. We wouldn’t be having these conversations if it weren’t. Be patient with those who don’t agree with you. They don’t have to be wrong for you to be right.

Dawn Kepler
Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to [email protected].