A Mixed Bag
Non-Jewish grandparents celebrate Chanukah with their Jewish grandchildren.
Jennifer Lovy Contributing Writer
Karen Gasinski, a grandmother from Plymouth, loves Christmas carols, decorating her Christmas tree, making cookies and just about everything else associated with this festive holiday. So, when her daughter Kristi Magy converted to Judaism seven years ago, Gasinski struggled to accept the notion that Kristi would no longer be celebrating Christmas.
Jessica Billiau, on the other hand, was the first Jewish person her in-laws had ever met. In fact, her mother-in-law, who grew up on the East Side, “didn’t really know about the Holocaust,” according to Billiau, a Royal Oak mother of two.
Having families with different religions meant that Billiau and Magy both decided to have the “no Christmas talk” with their respective family members and explain why their kids would not be celebrating Christmas.
“As I spoke about it with my mother, I focused on the symbolism of the Chanukiah, the lighting of candles and the foods fried in oil,” said Magy of Troy. “My mom is the one who taught me about the importance of stories and passing on our family history, so learning about the history and symbols of Chanukah helped her to understand why I loved it so much. It was a good conversation that is still ongoing as she has a hand in helping me to raise my two children, ages 4 and 2.”
When Billiau and her husband, Jason, became parents four years ago, her mother-in-law talked a lot about celebrating Christmas, and they had “the talk” again.
“She was a bit resistant at first and asked why we couldn’t celebrate both,” recalled Billiau of her mother-in-law who passed away earlier this year. This will be the first holiday season without her.
Billiau’s answer to why they couldn’t celebrate both: “[Her grandson] is Jewish and will always be a Jew.”
“My mother-in-law was obsessed with Christmas but came to realize the importance of Judaism to us and that it was not her place to decide which holidays my kids would celebrate,” Billiau said. “Once she was told we would only be celebrating Chanukah and not Christmas, she was always very respectful.”
Being able to engage grandparents in Chanukah celebrations and teaching them about the customs and traditions of the holiday is an important step in helping them feel included and to understand the differences between the two holidays.
Because Christmas and Chanukah almost always fall close to each other and have evolved to include gift giving as a major component of the holidays, for better or worse, the two are often compared.
“My mom helps light the Chanukah candles; she knows how to sing the brachot, even though we still have to remind her of what it means,” Magy said. “We bake fun Chanukah sugar cookies in place of Christmas cookies, and we sing. Singing is something that has always made my mother and me close, and we continue that tradition of the song to build my children’s relationship with Judaism as well as with their grandmother.”
Gasinski said she and her grandchildren often search YouTube for Chanukah songs sung by some modern musical groups such as Six13, Shir Soul and the Maccabeats. Her love of music and enjoyment of these songs has helped her deepen her relationship with her grandchildren, whom she spends weekdays with while her daughter and son-in-law work.
“It’s because of my mother that my children know so many fun Chanukah songs,” Magy said.
Gasinksi also enjoys making potato latkes. “I know how to make them the good way,” she said, crediting her non-Jewish Polish mother-in-law for teaching her the secret to a delicious potato pancake — rinsing and drying the grated potato to get rid of the extra starch.
Hillary Glaser, a Walled Lake resident and mother of two, said her mom remarried a Catholic man when Glaser was 13. When Glaser’s mother passed away in 2014, shivah overlapped with Chanukah. One night, following shivah, the family lit their menorah and proceeded with a gift exchange. According to Glaser, her stepdad’s face lit up a bit as he watched his grandchildren open their gifts.
“It’s something he still wants to do,” she said. “I think by now he knows most of the [Chanukah] songs. He doesn’t sing them, but he will clap along. He definitely tries.”
Her stepdad continues to celebrate with the family and will often make Chanukah crafts and decorations with her two children, Ori, 5, and Yoav, 6½.
“I have a lot of friends who are intermarried and their in-laws insist on Christmas presents. I feel lucky we’re not the norm among blended families and we’re blended, upon blended, upon blended,” says Glaser, lovingly referring to the fact that her Catholic stepdad is now married to a Chaldean woman and they continue to participate in the Glasers’ Chanukah celebrations.