Celebrating an Interfaith Holiday
Holiday symbols can prove one of the biggest sticking points for many interfaith or intercultural families. If mom is Jewish, she may balk at having a Christmas tree in the house (although the Christmas tree as we know it actually stems from Pagan, not Christian, tradition). If dad is Christian, he may feel uncomfortable with the religious symbolism of the menorah-lighting ceremony.
“One of the things we advise people to do is to try to separate out what’s a nostalgic attachment from what is a religious obligation,” says Mary Rosenbaum, executive director of the Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources. “It’s not that childhood memories aren’t important, but it’s a different kind of importance.”
A lot of families have successfully merged two traditions into a holiday celebration that assimilates both faiths and cultures. It is possible to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah if you and your spouse are willing to respect each other’s culture and traditions. My husband and I decided to light the menorah on each night of Hanukkah, but we have our son open his presents all at once on Christmas morning. We avoid more overtly religious practices such as the crèche and holiday services.
As long as you’re clear about your choices and consistent with your celebration, your children will accept the traditions as you establish them, says Rosenbaum. But to avoid confusion, she recommends that you make clear distinctions: Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday, Christmas is a Christian holiday. That said, there are things you can do to make each holiday more inclusive for both partners. When you light the menorah each night, for example, you can say the blessing in English as well as in Hebrew.
Secular families may prefer a more symbolic and less religious holiday celebration. Rather than having a Christmas tree, you can put up a holiday tree—not a fir or spruce, but another species of tree. Decorate it with lights or ornaments that reflect the overall spirit of the season. Play songs without religious overtones; for example, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” rather than “Silent Night.” Stay home and read holiday-themed stories instead of going to religious services.
Away from Home for the Holidays
Even if you and your spouse can agree on how to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and/or Kwanzaa at home, what will happen the first time you spend the holidays with your in-laws? Will they insist on giving your Jewish-raised children Christmas presents? Will they serve ethnic foods your children are not used to eating? Your parents and in-laws may be less willing to bend their longstanding traditions or spiritual beliefs to fit your comfort level.
To avoid conflict in front of your children, try to work out the details of the celebration before you arrive. “The worst thing to do is to not say anything about it and hope that it turns out all right,” says Rosenbaum. “It’s better to sit down and say, ‘here’s what we are willing to do and here’s what we aren’t willing to do.’” If you’ve raised your children Christian but are going to be celebrating Hanukkah at your in-laws’ home, let your kids know that it’s okay to enjoy another religion’s holiday, even if it isn’t your own. (Use these other tips for balancing holiday family time.)
Building Holiday Memories
It may not happen on your first holiday together, but eventually you’ll establish your own family holiday rituals. You may decide to blend your childhood traditions or to create new experiences that are unique to your family. Either way, use the holidays as an opportunity for your family to learn more about one another and to celebrate the bonds that hold you together.
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