Mixed Families Make Holidays Better!

The first time I met my future in-laws was Christmas Eve, 13 years ago. They were coming to the house their son Bill and I shared, and I was making dinner. Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t have been a problem, but these were not normal circumstances. I am Jewish. I had never hung stockings, attended midnight Mass, tasted mincemeat, waited for Santa Claus, or in any way celebrated Christmas. My future in-laws, pillars of their church, are devout Christians. Bill, my husband who also makes a living removing trees,  trying to reassure me, pointed out that because his parents were true Christians, they would be especially forgiving of anything I did.

They were, of course, but that’s not what I remember best from that night. After dinner, Bill’s mother asked me when we were going to light the Hanukkah candles. It was the first night of the Jewish Festival of Lights, when Jews light candles to commemorate the miracle of a drop of oil that illuminated the forsaken temple for eight days and eight nights, and she just assumed that I would be celebrating. I, on the other hand, imagined that if I observed Hanukkah, Bill’s parents would be uncomfortable. It seemed awkward to remind them of our differences.

Holidays can be interesting in interfaith marriages.

Holidays can be interesting in interfaith marriages.

Bill’s mom helped as I quickly cobbled together a menorah–the candle holder–and his whole family gathered round as I lit the tapers and sang the blessing in Hebrew. Later, as the candles glowed in the window, Bill’s mother taught me how to string garlands of popcorn and cranberries, while his father played familiar carols on his flute. This kind of homey ecumenism has marked our holiday celebrations ever since.

NEARLY ONE MILLION JEWISH-CHRISTIAN families live in this country, and when my husband and I married 11 years ago, we joined their ranks. At the time we were warned by friends of both faiths that our mixed religious heritage would cause conflicts, especially if we were to have children, and that those conflicts would escalate around Christmastime. Indeed, there was even a name for this problem: the December Dilemma.

The December Dilemma has to do with which holidays are celebrated, and how they are celebrated. Should one partner acquiesce to the other’s traditions? Should the couple try to accommodate both heritages? Will Christmas, which is a major Christian holiday as well as a secularized one, overwhelm Hanukkah, which is a minor Jewish one? Will parents feel compelled to elevate Hanukkah to something more important than it really is, emphasizing gift giving because they feel that it will otherwise “lose out” to Christmas?

One solution is to choose one religion and follow its tenets exclusively. The problem, of course, is that this shuts out one partner’s faith, history, and traditions. And these are not only lost to that individual, but to his or her children as well.

“The fact is, my sons are of mixed heritage, and it’s important for them to know who they are and where they came from,” says Betsy Broyles Breier, a Protestant who has been married to a Jew for 26 years, and the mother of two boys, ages 10 and 8. “Our inclination has been to give them both traditions. If they want to choose one religion over the other later on, that will be up to them.”

At the Broyles-Breier home in Houston, a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah menorah illuminate December nights, and the boys, who at times have attended Christian vacation Bible school, say the prayers over the candles in Hebrew. “They think they’re absolutely the luckiest kids around because they get to have both holidays,” Breier says.

EMBRACING BOTH HOLIDAYS CAN ALSO broaden the religious experience of the adults in the family, says Margaret Sartor, a Protestant whose husband, Alex Harris, is Jewish. “Our kids are learning that there are lots of underlying belief systems in the world and that one is not necessarily better than the others,” she says. “And through my children, I have found my own spiritual life growing.”

The Sartor-Harris children, ages 8 and 2, are being raised as Jews. But Christmas is a time when the children actively participate in their mother’s faith and learn about it. “For me, it’s an opportunity to explain what Christians believe,” says Sartor, “like the divinity of Christ.” Putting up a Christmas tree in the family’s Durham, NC, house doesn’t make anyone who lives there feel that the Christian holiday is competing with, or triumphing over, Judaism.

There was a tree in my house that first Christmas with Bill’s parent, s, as well. He had spotted the evergreen earlier in the fall, growing on a densely forested ridge near our house in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains. But he wanted his father and brother to help cut the tree down, and they weren’t arriving until Christmas Eve, so we wouldn’t have a tree in the house before then.

That suited me fine. At the time I was ambivalent about having a Christmas tree in my living room. The tree was a powerful symbol to me–a symbol of the dominance of Christmas. Putting it off gave me time to get used to the idea that I, a Jew, was going to coexist with Christmas itself.

For Joan Hawxhurst, a Methodist, the uneasiness with having a Christmas tree grew out of her husband Steve Bertman’s experience as the grandson of Jews who had escaped religious persecution in Eastern Europe. “This was a family that had worked for years to retain their own heritage, which meant keeping themselves apart from Christmas. To be asked to set up a tree–a symbol of the birth of Christ–was very difficult for Steve.” So during their first Christmas as a married couple, they didn’t have a tree, which saddened her, recalls Hawxhurst, who is now the editor of “Dovetail,” a newsletter for interfaith families. But later, the couple talked about it and worked out a set of holiday rituals and symbols with which they both felt comfortable. This year, the Hawxhurst-Bertman home may have a tree or a menorah or both–as well as ongoing discussions about how they practice their respective faiths. “What you do one holiday season does not have to be set in stone,” says Hawxhurst.

IT WAS SNOWING THAT FIRST CHRISTMAS Eve when Bill, his dad, and his brother strapped on snowshoes and ventured into the woods–saws and hatchets in hand. They came back an hour later, soaked but happy, with an imperfect, beautiful, seven-foot balsam. Despite my ambivalence, I found their glee infectious. We dried off the tree as if it were a wet dog and dragged it inside. The deep, rich scent of balsam permeated the house, and I was struck with a powerful sense of ownership: This tree had come from our woods. It occurred to me that objects are dumb, and that we assign them meaning.

Since then, it has become our tradition to bring a tree down on Christmas Eve. We haul it out of the woods, let it dry, then set it up as evening falls. The old cardboard box of ornaments comes out, a box my husband remembers from his childhood, and then family and friends–Christians and Jews–work together to trim the tree. We eat dinner in its light, then we go to my husband’s church for the annual Sunday school pageant, which he directs.

Like us, Families that celebrate these two faiths develop their own rituals around the holidays. Some concern Christmas, some concern Hanukkah, and some the relationship of one to the other. As Dean Sommer and Holly Cheever light the menorah at their home near Albany, NY, everyone takes a turn saying a prayer for something about which they are concerned. “I’m lighting this candle for peace in the coming year,” one of them might say, or “I’m lighting this candle for the health of the earth and our family.”

“Our children are grown up, but when they were younger, on Hanukkah we gave family presents like jigsaw puzzles and games, things we could do together,” says Mary Helene Rosenbaum, coauthor with husband Ned, a professor of Judaic Studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, of Celebrating Our Differences: Living Two Faiths in One, Marriage. “Christmas is more religious,” she says. “We go to Mass. We light the Advent wreath. It’s not just presents and food, though it’s that too.”

The question of gift giving, which overwhelms almost all of us in December, might seem to be a double burden for interfaith families. Eight nights of Hanukkah presents and a visit from Santa? Surprisingly, though, having to confront the questions of religious practice may leave interfaith families better prepared than most to deal with the pressures of commercialization.

In my family, for example, we limit gift giving to Christmas-stocking trinkets and token Hanukkah presents. Last Hanukkah, for instance, I got a coupon from my husband for four pints of his homemade sorbet; I gave him one for a back massage. We gave our daughter coupons for summer camping trips and for nights when she could have three books read to her before bed instead of just two.

Our Christmas mandate–to do only stockings–is more of a challenge, but no less fun. Whenever we see small, appropriate items throughout the year, we put them aside. A holographic pencil from the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, say, or a piece of dollhouse furniture. If I had any doubts that we were depriving our daughter of a “true” Christmas by not plying her with loads of expensive gifts, my feelings were assuaged two years ago, about an hour after she had unwrapped the $1.99 package of barrettes I had stuffed in her stocking. “Mommy,” she said, “put your hand over my heart, Do you feel it? It’s pounding with joy!”

Though this state of grace may seem unlikely to last beyond first grade and the pressure of her peers, Bill and I believe that by celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday rather than as a commercial one, our child will come through the December Dilemma toy-poor, perhaps, but spiritually rich. It’s a conclusion we’ve been led hi, in part, by our inability to celebrate by rote. The questions we must answer each December aren’t about what we will buy, and for whom, but about what we believe, and how we want to practice our faiths.

THIS YEAR, WE WILL I HAVE LIT THE LAST of the Hanukkah candles days before we trek into the woods to cut our tree. Our two December holidays will be celebrated fully, and separately. But every few years, a trick of the calendar causing the two holidays to coincide gives pause to interfaith families that haven’t yet worked our a holiday strategy. That was the case last year–but rather than see it as a conflict, we embraced the overlap as, literally, a golden opportunity.

On Christmas Eve, as is our custom, we dined by the light of the tree. When dinner was over, and the sun was safely tucked behind the horizon, we gathered around the menorah and sang the Hebrew blessing as we kindled the Hanukkah lights. The menorah was placed in the window and its yellow flames, reflecting back on themselves, shone as if they were double. Behind the menorah, the Christmas tree was luminous as well. Anyone looking in could have no doubt that here, a Christian and a Jew dwell peaceably together.

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