For many Jewish families, Christmas each year is a time of decision.
"This month of December is a rather difficult time for Jews," said Rabbi Arnold G. Fink of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria. "Jews often feel a great sense of marginality and insecurity. The feeling of being left out is too much for some. And . . . some erect Hanukah bushes, better known as Christmas trees!"
Fink recently listened to members of his congregation tell him and each other the problems some of them face this time every year.
Some parents said they object to angels in public schools; others said they didn't mind the decorations so long as their children aren't expected to sing Christmas carols or participate in plays that contradict Jewish teachings. Some said they regard Santa Claus and Christmas trees as Christian symbols that compromise their Judaism; others said these were harmless traditions.
All had arrived at their own solutions.
"My son (now 26) always thought December was a great time to convert to Christianity," said Froma Lippman, an Arlington education consultant and lecturer on Jewish issues. "He liked to sing carols and was part of a chorus . . . Once he even brought home a Christmas wreath he made in school." c
Lippmann said herson was, nevertheless, secure in his Jewish beliefs and she viewed his December ambivalence as healthy curiosity.
"I always encouraged my children to visit their Christian friends at Christmas time," she said. "They participated in all the festivities, saw their trees, helped decorate them and tasted the cookies. But all with the special knowledge that they were just visitors."
Lippman said she made up for her children's December disappointments by "going all out at Passover" and by faithfully observing the sabbath in her home 52 weeks a year.
Madelaine Fusfield, an Alexandria mother of two teen-aged children, has the opposite problem at her home. Fusfield, a convert from Christianity, said she still enjoys the tradition of a Christmas tree but her son, who recently had his bar mitzvah, objects.
"He knows I don't place any religious significance on the tree and music and has told me he thinks it's shallow [to celebrate Christmas and] not buy the whole package."
"But I'm too old now to give up what I knew all my life," said Fusfield. "I view Christmas as the birth of a wonderful little Jewish boy and don't see anything wrong with celebrating that," she said. "I see Easter as a much greater threat to my Jewish beliefs and would not feel comfortable celebrating that."
Shelia Wayman of Falls Church said her two teen-aged daughters have never been interested in Christmas. But Wayman, who is married to a Christian, said her mixed feelings are sometimes hurt that her husband's family "still sends my girls Christmas gifts wrapped in Christmas paper, even though they know the children were being raised in a Jewish home."
Wayman said her family sends Christmas cards to Christian friends bearing messages of "joy or season's greetings," but she doesn't see this as a compromise.
Marilyn Broder, a Silver Spring mother, said she avoided the whole problem by sending her children to Jewish day schools. "They were taught at an early age [that we don't celebrate Christmas], and they accepted it. They just know that everybody does their own religion. They have their own holidays to look forward to, and we never had a bit of trouble."
Fink told the 22 parents that he was pleased with the solutions they had arrived at, but he cautioned against the temptation to "compensate for the absence of Christmas by overcelebrating Hanukah." Giving gifts, decorating and sending cards at Hanukah is an outgrowth of this competition with Christmas, he said.
"If you try to compete with Christmas, you'll always lose hands down," Fink said. "Hanukah is a minor holiday and should not be celebrated like Christmas."
The best defense, Fink said, is "not to become Jewish in December. Celebrate your Jewishness all year long. On the sabbath, tell your kids the story of Exodus so they identify with what it means to be a Jew. Then they won't be puzzled at Christmas time."