Advice, please, on sharing Christmas with Jewish parent? - Mothering Forums
Blended and Step Family Parenting > Advice, please, on sharing Christmas with Jewish parent?
VocalMinority's Avatar VocalMinority 12:09 PM 04-08-2009
My husband has had sole custody of his 9-y-o son (Vincent) for just over a year. His ex-wife moved Vincent across the country with her about a year & 1/2 before the custody change. For years, she had tried to sabotage the father-son relationship and to minimize or eliminate contact between them. That escalated, with the move, until the court said enough was enough. Now Vincent sees her at Christmas, Spring and Summer Breaks and she has come here to visit, twice. He's doing remarkably well. Certainly he loves his mom and misses her, but that doesn't appear to keep him from enjoying school, friends, playing and our family. (My twin sons are two of his best friends and we also have a one-year-old son.)

When my husband got custody, we both understood that he has a duty to do more than relish the fact that he "won":
#1- He must do better than his ex did, at sheltering Vincent from the ugliness and emotional manipulation in their divorce, and
#2- He must be more supportive of her relationship with Vincent than she was of his.
With those ideals in mind, we have a dilemma:

1. We're practicing Catholics, so we observe the big Christian holidays in all the traditional ways.
2. BioMom was adopted at birth and raised Jewish, but in her late 20's/early 30's she rejected that family, "found" her birth mother (a Christian) and participated in the fun, secular aspects of Christian holidays. She and my husband met, married and had Vincent during those years.
3. By the time Vincent was in kindergarten, BioMom and my husband had divorced, her birth mom had died and she had reconnected with her childhood family. Since then, she's given every sign that she identifies herself as Jewish. She doesn't practice the religion, but she celebrates Chanukah and Purim, not Christmas and Easter. She tells people she and Vincent are Jewish (including the court and the custodial evaluator). Also, when she moved, it was to the city where her Jewish family lives, so she has a connection to that community again and her closest friends out there, now, are Jewish.
4. Furthermore, she has said subversive things to Vincent about Christianity and tried to deny my husband's visitation on Christian holidays, even though she didn't celebrate them. (That's par for the course. She has also denied visitation at times like Fathers' Day and birthdays in my husband's family. She does not seem to recognize/care that such occasions are more special for Vincent when he celebrates them with his dad.)
5. Two years ago (just before the custody change), she insisted that Vincent spend Christmas Day with her, but she did not observe it with him, beyond taking the day off work and ice skating. Vincent expressed sadness about "missing Christmas" and said "even Santa forgot him". (Of course, we did our best to celebrate with him when we could, but we can't recreate Midnight Mass, or the huge gathering of extended family at our house on Christmas Day. Plus, Vincent still believes in Santa, but he did not buy the story that Santa visited us on Dec. 27th that year!)
6. Then last year (when Vincent spent Christmas Day here), BioMom put up a Christmas tree when he visited her and told him that what are normally his "Chanukah" gifts from her were "Christmas" gifts, that year.
7. Just now, she has sent Vincent home from Spring Break with an Easter basket and e-mailed my husband that this year it's her turn to have him Christmas Day - and she wants to buy his plane tickets right now! She wrote that Christmas is a "magical" time that's "precious" to her because of her birth mom.
8. But she also wrote that she will "give up" Christmases with Vincent if my husband makes her a good offer! He offered to pay half Vincent's airfare at Christmas Break and to give her a longer visit than the 7 days in their court order, but she said that's not enough.


- Should my husband focus on "sheltering Vincent from the ugliness in their divorce"? Obviously it would be wrong if we bought a cheap menorah and used that as an excuse to keep Vincent away from his Jewish mom every other year, during Chanukah. There's plenty to suggest that's exactly what his mom's trying to do now, with her Christmas tree and the Easter basket. If so - if she really doesn't intend to celebrate Christmas with Vincent any more than she did last time - then it would be a shame for my husband to be manipulated into letting Vincent feel like he "missed Christmas" again, since being custodial parent allows my husband to prevent that! (He can say "no" to her having Cinzo Christmas Day - even if she doesn't agree - and her only recourse would be to take him back to court. Since she has already established with the court that she's Jewish and doesn't celebrate Christmas, she'd probably lose.)

- OR should he be focused on "being more considerate of his ex than she was of him"? After all, if she has truly recovered some nostalgia for the holidays she used to celebrate with her birth mom (and with Vincent, when he was littler), then it would be arrogant for us to "hog" those holidays every year, just because we are committed to consistent beliefs and she seems confused. She's still Vincent's mom, so if she really does resume celebrating those holidays, we shouldn't make it into a contest over who puts on the "bigger and better" celebration.

(Incidentally, we can't think of anything more that my husband could reasonably offer her, in exchange for Christmas. He already waived child support so she could spend that money traveling here to visit Vincent.)

Sorry so long, but I'd love some feedback!


sunflowers's Avatar sunflowers 03:59 PM 04-08-2009
As easy as your husband is trying to be, you need to either change the visitation schedule or just stick to it. No swapping.

Your dss will have every other year to celebrate with his father in your family tradition and his mother will have the alternate years to celebrate however she sees fit. I simply don't see how it's an awful thing.

Just tell her that it is her year and to go ahead an buy the plane tickets if she wants. Personally, I am not terribly religious but I'd not give up my holiday time with my child. Even if I just took her iceskating. When parents divorce they need to understand that this will effect their holiday traditions. We need to create new ones or different ways of celebrating those traditions when it's the other parent's holiday.
VocalMinority's Avatar VocalMinority 05:06 PM 04-08-2009
Sunflowers: Thank you. I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

You don't think there's a difference between, say, a child's birthday (which of course each parent should get to celebrate with the child in their own way, every other year) and a holiday one parent celebrates but the other doesn't? My husband feels if he agrees to let his son spend Christmas Day with his ex again, he will be forcing his son to miss celebrating Christmas, to make things easier for himself (i.e., not having to deal with his ex). And the reason the court gave him custody is that so many of his ex's decisions made things more pleasant for herself, at the child's expense. He was supposed to be the one to put the child first.

However, the very reason I posted the issue is because my husband and I can't seem to conclusively decide what's right, so I am re-reading what you've said and trying to be more open to others' ideas!
aricha's Avatar aricha 08:11 PM 04-08-2009
Here's how we handle it:

The schedule is the schedule. It is dates on a calendar and periods of time that are dictated by a document from the court. It is what it is. For the most part, we don't consider that to be flexible or negotiable.

What happens on mom's parenting time is her business. If she wants to celebrate the Chinese New Year one year and it falls on her time, she is welcome to do so. If she wants to skip Christmas altogether or celebrate it in June, that's up to her.

We celebrate holidays on our schedule. Soemtimes that correlates with the actual date, sometimes not. Usually it is in the ballpark (we had Easter last Sunday, for example) and sometimes not (such as last year when we celebrated Easter in the middle of July). Soemtimes we make up holidays, like her siblings half-birthdays, which have become a big celebration at our house.

When my husband talks to his ex about plane tickets or pick-ups, he does it in terms of calendar dates, not holidays. The only mention in the schedule of a holiday is that if the half-way point of alternate winter breaks falls on Christmas day, pick-up will be the next day (she comes here for her whole break one year, and 1/2 of her break the alternate years). That is something her mother asked for... we would have been fine with pick-up on Christmas day because we just aren't tied to the holiday calendar anymore.

PS My step-daughter is 6, and she has NO problem with celebrating on alternate dates. As far as she is concerned, Santa comes on one day at mom's and a different day at dad's. And as far as she is concerned right now, she turned 6 in VT then turned 6 again a couple weeks later in CA. Our families (grandparents, etc) have been very accommodating of our "alternative holiday schedule), which helps tremendously!
pinksprklybarefoot 10:46 AM 04-09-2009
I agree with Aricha. If a child's two houses have a good working relationship, being flexible is great. If not, just stick to the schedule. If one house has a problem with the schedule, they can revisit it formally through the courts.

FYI, because I see that you are pretty new: The term "biomom" doesn't go over very well on this board. It's been hashed out to death, and the consensus seems to be to just say "DSS's mom."
VocalMinority's Avatar VocalMinority 08:56 AM 04-10-2009
Thanks for the tip about the term "biomom".

You hit the nail on the head: #1 - I am used to an extremely flexible schedule with my own ex, so the rigidity with my husband's ex is quite new, for me. #2 - The one "hole" in my husband's and his ex's custodial orders is Christmas/Christmas break, where there are no rules whatsoever, except that my step-son needs to spend some 7-day period with his mom and she pays his airfare. Which 7 days? Are they supposed to be the same ones every year? Who is supposed to choose them? Are they supposed to alternate who has the child Christmas Day? It doesn't say. Another section of their orders does mention the fact that my step-son's mom is Jewish and doesn't celebrate Christmas, but it doesn't specify that my husband is the only one who should have him that day. So maybe they do need more clarity from the court. We just hate to go back!
mtiger's Avatar mtiger 02:36 PM 04-10-2009
This is the reality when parents don't stay together.

My ex never did the Santa thing once we split, and simply told the kids that Santa only came to Mommy's house. So, Santa came to my house, when he was supposed to and their gifts waited for them to come home. They got gifts from myself and my family when we could all get together - usually the following weekend. Th last few years, he hasn't taken them for Christmas, but opts to take them for the rest of the break. Would I like the occasional New Year with them? Sure, I would. Especially when they spend the Eve on their own anyway. Such is life.

Also, it is only another year or so that Vincent will believe in Santa. Then it will be a moot point.

Since we celebrate different Easters, we did have it written into the order that he gets Western Easter and I get Orthodox Easter every year. Unless they're on the same Sunday (which happens every few years) - then I get them by default as we celebrate Easter in a big way. Some years he takes them, some he doesn't. <shrug> Fine with me as my Dad isn't Orhtodox so we celebrate with him.
Smithie's Avatar Smithie 05:32 PM 04-10-2009
I don't have a blended family, but we have an interfaith family and have celebrated aspects of Christmas and Hannukah on various non-calendar-compliant days for various reasons, and it really does work out just fine if the adults involved are all positive and on-board and feeling the holiday spirit. So I would not feel that I had a right to insist on anybody being in any location on Hannukah or Christmas, although I certainly have my preferences WRT the issue!

That said, if Vincent's mom was adopted by Jews and raised as a Jew, then according to most Jewish people Vincent would be considered Jewish. I understand that you have full custody of him and I'm sure there are good reasons for that, but I certainly hope you are avoiding any of the formal induction processes (baptism, Confirmation) that Catholics typically do with their children. All personal issues with Vincent's biomom aside, his membership in Jewish community exists by virtue of being born to a Jewish woman and is his to accept or reject, not yours to take away by having him converted to Catholicism. If you pressure/oblige/encourage/permit Vincent to officially declare his faith in Jesus as a child, he may not be eligible to have a bar mitzvah and/or a Jewish wedding without undergoing a formal conversion, which involves getting totally naked and dunking oneself in a pool in front of a rabbi, after first having a drop of blood ceremonially taken from the end of his penis. (How this would be handled varies widely from rabbi to rabbi, but one can see how it might turn into a very ugly, resentment-provoking situation in a way that formally converting to Catholicism at age 18 would not, unless y'all have adopted some new practices that I have not heard of.)

If I was handed a child to raise who was born of a Christian mother, I would send them to church and Sunday School, AND have them celebrate the Jewish holidays as part of our family. I would be very, very resistant to any formal conversion before the age of 18. Sending Vincent to Hebrew school might be a way to arrive at a compromise with his mother - i.e., OK, we respect his religious and ethnic status and aren't seeking to alienate him from your religion, now please let us celebrate Christmas together as an important FAMILY holiday. My kids love to celebrate Christmas with their non-Jewish relatives. I love it too. But the basis for eliminating potential conflict is in the respect my non-Jewish relatives pay to the essential rule of my theology - no Jesus talk in front of the kids! Give them a Rudolph toy, not the Fisher-Price creche! They do hear Jesus talk in churches when somebody gets married or buried, but then, their Christian relatives sit through major lifecycle events in the synagogue as well.

I realize that your situation is more complicated because it's not one where all the adults get along, but I really think your legitimate frustration with Vincent's mom's behavior is spilling over into a disregard for Jewish practice and theological boundaries in general, which isn't going to do anybody any good. Sending a Jewish child to catechism class is something that most Jewish people would find deeply offensive. Taking a Jewish child to Christmas mass along with the rest of the family is something that most Jewish people would find totally reasonable. This is about so much more than Vincent's mom and her difficult attitude. Vincent belongs to something really special and I would hate to see you and your husband, with the best of intentions, take it away from him. He would be just as Jewish if his mom had died in childbirth, so this REALLY isn't about the decisions she's made or the other religious traditions she's practiced.
aricha's Avatar aricha 02:36 AM 04-11-2009
Originally Posted by Jeannine View Post
#2 - The one "hole" in my husband's and his ex's custodial orders is Christmas/Christmas break, where there are no rules whatsoever, except that my step-son needs to spend some 7-day period with his mom and she pays his airfare. Which 7 days? Are they supposed to be the same ones every year? Who is supposed to choose them? Are they supposed to alternate who has the child Christmas Day? It doesn't say.
I can't say enough how much easier life has become and how much easier my husband's relationship with his ex since they got everything spelled out clearly in the custody orders. I think it took a couple calendar years and several changes to get it in a place that worked. We insisted on really specific language everywhere possible so there was little room for interpretation. I'm talking it doesn't say "one week," it says "seven days." It includes a definition of when a weekend begins and ends, what a long weekend is, etc, etc.

I think you have to cycle through the calendar at least once to find the glitches. You don't have to necessarily go back to court to make the changes, you can agree to the changes and file the change with the court. Most courts have someone who will help make sure you fill out the right paperwork, etc so you don't even have to pay a lawyer. That is assuming you can both agree to something.

Having BTDT with trying to iron out the details, I would say either agree to a specific 7 days, alternating each year if that is better (ie the first 7 days after school gets out on even years, the last 7 in odd years), or alternate who gets to choose the days (ie mom chooses the 7 days in even years, dad chooses them in odd years). If someone has a choice, we've found it very helpful to have a notification deadline (ie the parent responsible for making the choice will notify the other parent of his/her choice by Oct 1st). If the actual day of Christmas is important to both parents, you can specify that he is with mom 7 consecutive days to include Christmas on even years and not including Christmas day on odd years (or whichever way it works). If the actual day of Christmas is important to one and not the other, you could specify that Christmas Day is always included in one parent's time.

Make sense? For whatever it's worth? H

aving been through a lot of "ironing out," I'm happy to try to share my learning curve so others can get through it faster!
VocalMinority's Avatar VocalMinority 02:46 PM 04-11-2009
Aricha - Thanks. That's very sensible. Clearly, it's better when this can be less emotional and more about just following a set of rules. On a positive note, there has been nothing like dealing with this stuff, to make me appreciate my own, easy-going ex!
VocalMinority's Avatar VocalMinority 12:32 PM 04-13-2009
Smithie -

I've taken a few days to digest your response. This isn't what I expected to discuss, but I do believe you're offering your honest opinion and thinking of my step-son Vincent's interests. I really love him - and my husband and I both want to do the best for him, even where it may be hard for us - so thank you for trying to be helpful. But I couldn't disagree with you more.

The Jewish mother here was adopted from Episcopalian birth parents. You believe her formative childhood experience with people who took the time to raise her as a Jew supercedes her ethnicity and makes her "Jewish enough" that her own biological child should be considered ethnically Jewish, despite having no blood ties to the Jewish people. So far, I agree with you!

But how, then, can you completely discount the importance of Vincent's childhood religious guidance? His mom chose, as an adult, not to practice Judaism, save a minor degree of superficial cultural identity (eating bagels and challah bread and throwing around a few Hebrew words - things I also enjoy doing, as a Catholic!) and celebrating just the "fun" holidays, Chanukah and Purim. Even those, she was willing to trade for Christmas and Easter, during years when those close to her were all Christian. She chose to marry and make her son with a goy (whom she led to believe she was Christian) and agreed to let him raise the boy Catholic (yes, including baptism). Even after the divorce, when she traded her Christmas tree and Easter bunnies back in for a menorah and Purim costumes, she still never went to Temple, nor taught Vincent anything about the history or religious meaning behind the holidays she celebrated, much less about the more religiously significant Jewish occasions, like Yom Kippur. So, to Vincent, Judaism is simply a couple of fun holidays and some group his mom "belongs" to (but whose "meetings" she blows off), not something profound and spiritual, defining his connection to God and "his people" all the way back to the beginning of time! (And that is by his Jewish mother's choice, not because my husband or I have denied him something. It was never ours to give.) So - realistically, not theoretically - what value would there be to Vincent in going through the motions of a bar mitzvah? Just a club initiation? What meaning would there be for him in having a Jewish wedding? Just one more style he could choose from, along with "destination", "rustic" or "black tie"?

Meanwhile, you say that my husband - who does practice a religion and does have something profound and spiritual to offer his son during these important, formative childhood years - should not only withhold that gift, but should avoid even discussing his own beliefs about Jesus, for fear of contaminating his son's mind with ideas that would screw up Vincent's "membership eligibility" as a Jew?

If Vincent's mom were not affectionate, should my husband also withhold affection, to keep Vincent from feeling closer to his dad than his mom? Should we wait until Vincent is 18, to ask whether he wants to learn to be literate, or charitable, or a responsible steward of the environment, so we don't "push values on him" he may prefer not to embrace? To people who truly believe the tenets of their faith (whose "religion" is not just about cultural identity, or personal style, or a set of fun/familiar/comforting rituals), sharing those beliefs with their children is every bit as essential as sharing affection, sharing other household values, or teaching them to read! I do not believe you could find a rabbi or priest who thinks religious guidance during childhood is unimportant, and who advocates teaching a child nothing until they're 18, then expecting them to care enough about one faith or the other to want to start studying it then.

Furthermore, Vincent - as the child of a Catholic father - is just as much a Catholic! If you are as open-minded and tolerant of religious diversity as you sound, why is Vincent's "Jewishness" more important, in your mind, than his "Catholicness" - especially when only his Catholic relatives are willing to put in the effort to give him a religious education?

Two more things, just to be clear:
#1- All religious beliefs aside...for years, when Vincent's mom said she wanted to celebrate Christmas and Easter with him, it was a lie with the sole purpose of denying my husband the joy of spending those High Holy Days with Vincent. However, she may very well realize that Catholicism will only become a bigger part of Vincent's life now that he's living with us 4/5ths of the year and she may legitimately want to go back to celebrating the holidays that mean the most to her child. If that's the case, I know we should not deny her Christmas Day with Vincent, just because she's not as religious as we are.

#2- My frustration with her absolutely does not spill over into any negativity about Judaism. Fully half my closest friends are Jewish and I was so moved by what I saw of their faith, with their families, that I briefly considered converting as a teen. (Of course, instead, I made more effort to understand the history, beauty and value of my own parents' religion.) If it had ever been important to Vincent's mom to raise him as a Jew, I would have a different position...although Vincent also would not exist, because my husband would not have married and had a child unless the woman was OK with him raising the child as a Catholic.
Smithie's Avatar Smithie 01:56 PM 04-14-2009
Thank you for your thoughtful response, Jeannine. I was worried that I offended you, which was totally not my intent. There is such a huge difference between how Christians view issues of identity and how Jews view issues of identity that it can be really hard for either side to make themselves understood, even when everybody wants the same thing (a happy child who grows up to be a happy adult who worships God in the manner that accords with his conscience).

Some thoughts:

1. Wow, it sounds like Vincent's biomom has made a series of very eccentric choices. You have my total sympathy for having to deal with her. Celebrating just the "fun" holidays of Judaism is a very typical choice for reform Jews, and IME does not preclude a genuine and lasting affiliation with the religion, but that certainly doesn't mean that in this particular case the affiliation is not tangential.

2. I guess matters of opinion probably differ widely on this one, but as a matter of non-Orthodox Jewish law, ethnicity is not a factor is determining the Jewish status of an adopted child who is converted upon adoption. Whether Vincent's mother was converted by her adoptive parents is a question you should probably find out the answer to, since it may be important information for him someday.

3. BUT - If Vincent was baptized at birth with the consent of his father and mother, than a conversion would be required by most rabbis if he ever wished to take part in the Jewish community as a bar mitzvah (which means "subject to the commandments," and indicates that the person understands and accepts the responsibility for honoring the covenant between God and the Jewish people.) This would be equally true if his mother had been born Jewish. So, in the purely technical sense, the "damage" to Vincent's Jewish status was done before you ever entered the picture, and it would now rest with Vincent to reclaim his status (although obviously he would need adult support in order to do it at the traditional age - but it doesn't matter what age he does it at). So, you didn't take it away and you can't give it back and as far as legal status goes, you and your husband are off the hook. Nothing you do or don't do with Vincent in the Church will make him more or less Jewish according to the technicalities of Jewish law - although your attitude and your choices will certainly make it more or less likely for him to think of living a Jewish life as an adult choice that you would accept with a whole heart.

(And just so we're clear, talking to him about your own personal beliefs could never be inappropriate, it's the formal public proclamation of faith in Jesus by the Jewish child themselves that could cause technical difficulties later. Interfaith couples who can't resolve their differences and/or wish they child to choose their own path deal with this issue all the time - "Yes, you make take our mutual kids to the sunrise Easter service. Yes, you may let them go to Sunday school. No, you may not baptize our children as infants. Yes, if our children wish to be confirmed I will accept that outcome. Yes, I will be taking our kids to Tot Shabbat once a month. Yes, I will enroll them in Hebrew school. No, I will not let them make any formal declaration of Jewish identity until/unless they request to study for their bar mitzvah." It's a fine line to walk even when the parents are still together! But I see it work out beautifully in many, many cases. Granted, the kids I get to know are usually the ones who have decided to celebrate Christmas and Easter with Grandma, but formally identify as Jews in adulthood. Since Vincent was baptized, he doesn't technically fall into this category of undetermined-status child, but I think most non-Orthodox Jews would argue that morally, he is the child of interfaith parents and should be raised as a child with an important and legitimate claim on two spiritual traditions. )

4. Whew. This post got long! Anyhow, since Vincent lives with you and not with his mother and that doesn't seem likely to change, ultimately it's going to be up to you and your husband to let him know that it's utterly OK to enjoy all things Jewish, and to choose to practice Judaism in adulthood if he wants to. If this were my child to raise, I would make sure that he was educated in the tradition via Hebrew school (and believe you me, most Hebrew schools would not be in the least shocked or dismayed by your family's story, just glad that you are taking steps to facilitate an actual informed choice later in life). It's really important for Jewish or interfaith kids to have the chance to learn and socialize with other Jewish or interfaith kids. Some larger communities might even have a group specifically designed for interfaith kids to get to know each other. Other than that, I don't see how any Catholic thing you do or don't do as a family, or any visitation arrangement you make or don't make, will do any harm vis-a-vis the Jewish thing. It's all about leaving the door open for any questions he has or any exploration he wants to do, and making it crystal clear that belonging to your family is not contingent on growing up to be a believing/practicing Catholic. (Probably not bad advice WRT any kid! I certainly don't assume that my children will grow up to keep a Jewish home, not with the intermarriage rate above 50%! I can hope, but I try not to hang my heart on it.)

You are members of a majority religion, and you have custody. Vincent's mom is a member of a minority religion, and she does not have custody. You have the bat and ball and are making all the rules here - which is no fun position to be in, I realize. It's not that I have less tolerance for Catholicism over Judaism - it's just that I see the push towards Christianity in our overall society and Catholicism in your particular family to be nearly overwhelming, and I believe that it's always a good idea for the people in a position of ideological power to be very, very careful of how they wield it. I didn't mean that as a personal thing about you and your husband at all - more like a universal best-practices recommendation. A family who is raising a kid with any kind of minority affiliation should typically take some steps to make sure that kid grows up connected to their community. If nothing else, it works to assure the kid that the aspects of their identity which differ from the identity of the rest of the family are not 1) shameful 2) trivial 3) something that should be denied as an act of solidarity or as an expression of love for their family.
VocalMinority's Avatar VocalMinority 11:05 PM 04-14-2009
Smithie -

Interesting conversation! Thanks. You would probably be amused by the exchange Vincent and I had about Purim, last year. Again, he doesn't have any factual info. about these things from his mom, as best I can tell. His first spring with us, she sent him a Purim gift basket from an online candy shop called Zelda's. Before telling him the basics of what Jews celebrate on Purim, I asked him if he knew. Well, Vincent always has an answer, whether he's pulling it out of his ear, or not! Straight-faced, he said, "Yes. It's to celebrate the 'legendary' warrior, Zelda! I think I'm related to him, on my mom's side."