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Our son has a Christmas tree at his dad’s. Am I OK with this?

For parents of different faiths, December often brings holiday challenges. In a family affected by divorce, challenges can be amplified if parents have joint custody.

Before we married, my ex-husband and I decided we would have a Jewish home. He grew up in a secular family who celebrated Christmas with no religious significance, so we decided we’d spend Christmas with his parents but would not observe it ourselves. He agreed — but he really wanted a Christmas tree, the seasonal decoration that reminded him of his favorite childhood memories.

Though I knew some Jews who had Christmas trees in their homes, this was not the tradition in my family. In fact, I was raised with the precept that it was inappropriate to have a Christmas tree in a Jewish home. I didn’t feel jealous of my friends who had a tree, but I did enjoy the tradition, helping my friend Andrea and her family decorate their tree and sipping hot cocoa next to a cozy fireplace with the smell of fresh pine in the air.

But when we were getting married and thinking of starting a family, I couldn’t reconcile my need to assert my Jewish identity with the idea of having anything remotely Christian in my home. I stubbornly insisted there be no tree, and he reluctantly gave up, embracing the traditions of candlelight and latkes instead.

Now that we’re divorced, our son spends four nights a week with me and three nights with his dad. He attends a Jewish pre-school, where he learns all about Jewish holidays and traditions — and, in keeping with our pre-marital agreement, spends Christmas with his father and grandparents. Since our separation, my ex-husband has resumed the tradition of having a Christmas tree in his home. However, he has also been dedicated to observing Hanukkah, putting up equal amounts of blue and silver stars as he does red and green holly. He even lights a menorah with our son whenever they’re together on Hanukkah; this year, the three of us lit candles to commemorate the first night.

While I appreciate the equity with which my ex-husband observes the holidays, I worry that our son will become confused about his religious identity. Recent conversations with him have magnified these concerns:

“Mommy, why don’t you have a Christmas tree like Daddy?”

“Because I’m Jewish and Daddy’s not. I celebrate Hanukkah, and Daddy celebrates Christmas.”

“But Daddy celebrates Hanukkah, too.”

How can I explain why his father celebrates both holidays but his mother doesn’t? I expressed to my ex-husband my concern with how we’ve been discussing the holidays and my desire to be unified in our approach. I told him I feel uncomfortable saying he is “Christian” because he’s not, really — and I don’t want to define him as “not Jewish” because it’s odd to define someone by what they aren’t rather than what they are. He responded thoughtfully that these discussions should be centered around diversity, suggesting that we should say:

“There are all different kinds of people in the world, who have different beliefs and celebrate different things, and that’s what makes the world so interesting… and everybody has a right to believe in what they want, as long as they don’t hurt anyone else.”

I liked this answer, which was keeping with the values I hoped we were instilling in our son.

He continued, “We could explain that you don’t have to be Jewish to celebrate Hanukkah, and you don’t have to be Christian to celebrate Christmas. If a friend or family member observes any holiday, it’s nice to help them celebrate.” He compared this to helping someone celebrate their birthday, even if it’s not your own — an idea I knew would make sense to our almost-4-year-old son.

Our conversation made me doubt my previous stance. Had my thinking been too tribal? After all, the origins of the Christmas tree are neither Jewish nor Christian, per se, but an amalgam of traditions translated across centuries. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews.”

Why couldn’t we, as he suggested, simply commemorate one another’s rituals? And if my Hebrew ancestors had beautiful evergreen trees in their homes, why couldn’t we? Though I had hoped to have a singularly Jewish home and family, the reality has played out differently, as is the case for so many families in this diverse landscape of modern life. My ex-husband’s approach is idealistic at its core — to live in a world where we can all maintain our individual beliefs and traditions while celebrating our differences.

But can we celebrate our differences without diluting the traditions we hold dear? This is the question most interfaith families face, especially in December. I have started to think that observing a secular Christmas will not diminish a lifetime of Jewish education and rituals. The most vital thing to me is that my son values his Jewish identity while respecting others’ traditions. Maybe decorating a tree at his dad’s house won’t take that away from him, after all.

Follow Annette Powers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/annettepowers

Photo by  Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Sticking together as a family has gone from painful to joyful

My ex-husband and I had only been separated for five months when we signed up our 21-month-old son for his first music class. The class took place early on Saturday mornings, and due to our custody arrangement — alternate visitation on the weekends — that meant we would take turns accompanying him to class.

From day one, my son was obsessed with the class. He loved the songs, the dancing, the instruments, and especially his teacher. All the other kids sat calmly in their parents’ laps, but our son — a born performer — couldn’t sit still. Instead, he danced around in the center of the circle, making requests for his favorite melodies from class or from his personal repertoire, which grew to include songs by the Beatles, Lionel Richie, and tunes from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town.” I jokingly began referring to him as “The Conductor.”

I didn’t want to miss seeing my son’s exuberance in music class, so even if he was scheduled to be with his dad on a particular Saturday morning, I would often join them for those 45 minutes. My ex always seemed to welcome my presence, and we both agreed that it was good for our son to see us interacting in a friendly way.

The first few times the three of us attended class together were extremely difficult for me. The wounds of our broken marriage were still exceptionally raw, and I was teeming with anger at my ex, who had secretly cheated on me for 10 months before announcing that he wanted a divorce — giving me no warning that our marriage was even in trouble. I was still in a state of shock, processing the reality that we were no longer the nuclear family I thought we would be. That reality was even harder to swallow when we were in a class surrounded by seemingly happy couples. I tried to hide the tears that welled up in my eyes so that our son wouldn’t notice. And though it was painful, I was always glad I went.

Since then, we have embarked on other activities as a threesome. We have taken our son to his doctor’s appointments together and were both present for his first soccer class and his first “big boy” haircut at a real barber. For his third birthday, his father and I decided to take him out for a special dinner, where we talked mostly about our son and focused on all his new skills and interests. Our son was very excited for the three of us to be together, and it felt good to be able to do that for him.

After that positive experience, my ex suggested we meet monthly for dinner, saying he thought it would be good for our son — and even for us — to talk about things we usually only addressed via email or text message. We’ve been meeting monthly ever since.

I look forward to our dinners. It’s nice to be able to discuss our son in person with my ex — the only other person in the world who knows our child as intimately as I do. We also talk about our daily routines to make sure we are on the same page when it comes to discipline, eating, potty training, etc. We have made a very concerted effort to maintain one set of rules between both homes.

Occasionally during these dinners, I catch myself shifting into a temporary comfort zone. It feels so normal to be interacting as a family unit — like we used to. And then I remember that it’s only for dinner, and that reality burns. Sometimes, when our son is busy playing out of earshot, I make obnoxious side comments to my ex. I don’t intend to do it, but these poisonous barbs just slip out. He rolls his eyes, and we try to move on.

But more often than not, I savor the rare moments when my ex and I can once again connect on common ground. While I am acutely aware of the distance that exists between us and the copious amounts of water under the proverbial bridge, I also recognize the bond that remains. And it’s not just because we have a child together.

We were a couple for seven years, married for three, and went through several major life experiences together. Those connections don’t just disappear because we are no longer married. Sometimes it’s nice to touch base on our shared history — like how our parents and siblings are doing, or which of our mutual friends got married and are having babies — even if it reminds me of the relationship I lost. I trust that I will find that type of intimate relationship with another partner someday.

For now, I’m proud that my ex-husband and I can rise above our own issues and be more than just civil in front of our child — we can be friendly. Our son enjoys these dinners and looks forward to them. Just last week he said, “Mommy, I want to have dinner with you and Daddy soon” — so of course, we made it happen.

I know of a couple who got divorced under very similar circumstances and many years later they are friends again. They attend family events together with their new spouses and share in these occasions with their children. I hope that my ex-husband and I will also become real friends someday. Though I don’t expect him to be my best friend like he once was, I believe that these shared experiences will grow easier and become more enjoyable over time.

The dinners started at our son’s third birthday, but they are a gift we keep giving him — and ourselves — month after month.

Follow Annette Powers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/annettepowers

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Photo by  Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash