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Combining Faiths: Many in Mixed-Religion Marriages Struggle with How to Observe the December Holidays

Reprinted with permission of the Arizona Star.

As the holidays approach, Son and Lesley Nguyen are going over their decorations list: Christmas lights--check. Stockings for Cheetah and Joliet, the couples' cats--check. Sterling silver menorah--check.

Like an estimated 22 percent of American couples, the Nguyens are part of an interfaith relationship. In a month in which Christmas and Hanukkah fall near each other and sometimes overlap, the pair are trying to cobble together a set of traditions that stays true to both of their religious heritages.

Son, a 35-year-old engineer originally from Saigon, is a Catholic. Lesley, a 36-year-old teaching assistant, is equally committed to Judaism.

"I didn't want to make religion 'my' thing and 'her' thing," Son said.

For Hanukkah, which starts at sundown tonight and runs for eight days, the two light menorah candles, and Son gives Lesley a present for each of the holiday's nights.

On Christmas Eve, they attend midnight Mass, followed by a gift exchange with Son's parents.

"It's the season to be thankful for what you have, and I don't see that as being one single item," Son said.

Not all Christian-and-Jewish couples find the holidays an easy compromise.

In fact, the "December dilemma" can often be the single biggest headache a Christian-and-Jewish couple face, said Valerie Chapman Gale, director of the nonprofit counseling agency Roots and Wings.

Dana Baker, who was raised Christian, has already talked to her Jewish fiance, Brian Levine, about their plans to have both a Hanukkah and a Christmas celebration.

Although the Tucson couple are still trying to figure out other details, like which religious leader will officiate at their 2002 wedding, they've already agreed on one detail: "I told Brian my kids are having Santa and a tree at Christmas," she said with a laugh. "And that's that."

Hybrid holiday merchandise, with both Christmas and Hanukkah symbolism, attests to the struggle for some interfaith families to merge the two holidays' divergent practices.

Stores and catalogs sell stockings bearing the Star of David and "Christmas lights" in blue and silver Hanukkah colors.

Some in the Jewish community, particularly those who are Orthodox, take offense at these blended items.

"The message of Hanukkah is a very unique one and an important one," said Joseph Shemtov, a rabbi at Congregation Chabad Lubavitch and Congregation Young Israel. "To commercialize it, then to mix it with other religions is really defeating the holiday's purpose."

But as the number of mixed-religion marriages rises, there is likely to be some crossover, said Egon Mayer, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College.

Mayer helped research the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, a project conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The survey found that 27 percent of adult Jews, 33 percent of adult Protestants and 23 percent of adult Catholics are in mixed-religion families.

For interfaith couples, the holidays can be a particularly divisive time.

"If there are differences in religious traditions within family, they can be latent throughout the whole year, but holidays can bring them out," said Mark Chaves, a University of Arizona sociology professor who specializes in religion. "There is a deep connection between what we do at holidays and our religious backgrounds and traditions."

Not every interfaith family chooses to blend traditions. Some think the amalgamation of the two holidays lacks integrity.

Many Jews want to keep with the original intent of Hanukkah, a celebration stemming from a Jewish uprising against a dominant culture.

The holiday commemorates the rededication of the ancient Jerusalem Temple in the second century after a group of traditionalist Jews called the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greeks, who had sought to ban Jewish practices.

In addition to religious objections, some interfaith couples take a pragmatic stance against mixing the holidays, afraid of the conflicting signals it can send to children.

This holiday season, Paul and Bitsy Weintraub are doing something their kids find a little shocking: They are ditching the Christmas tree.

For years, the Weintraubs celebrated the holidays with a mixture of Paul's Jewish and Bitsy's Christian customs.

But because they have decided to raise their three children, Hannah, 11, Max, 9, and Nathan, 7, in the Jewish faith, they decided this was the year to stop sending what they call mixed holiday messages.

"We are trying to minimize confusion for the children," said Paul, a family physician at Indian Health Services. "We want to give them the opportunity to be part of just one religious group."

The key is to go into a mixed-religion marriage with as much knowledge as you can, said Brenda Landau, former director of interfaith programming at the Jewish Community Center.

"Seek guidance," she said. "Ask yourself as many questions as you can about your religious values and your family. Speak to your rabbi or clergy."

Many religious leaders gladly offer premarital counseling to people of different faiths who plan to marry, addressing everything from raising children to dealing with the December holidays.

Sitting down and talking through the issues before the marriage is crucial, according to Richard Staats, director of marriage and family life ministry at the Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest.

Forging through the holidays can be particularly complicated when an interfaith couple has children. Some parents fear that the lower-key rituals of Hanukkah will be dwarfed amid the hoopla and hype surrounding Christmas.

"There is no doubt that for kids growing up, everything is oriented toward Christmas," said Paul Weintraub. He remembers one of his children asking a neighbor, "Are you Jewish or Christmas?"

This year, the Weintraubs' daughter, Hannah, reacted with dismay when she heard of her parents' plans to forgo the tree.

After all, for those not old enough to fully contemplate the religious significance of the holidays, it's hard for a dreidel, a spinning top, to compete with the whirlwind excitement of a fat, bearded man delivering a sleigh full of presents.

The omnipresence of Christmas symbols and rituals in America often emphasizes Jews' feelings of being a cultural minority, said Edmund Case, publisher of the Web site InterfaithFamily.com.

Case is himself part of an interfaith couple. When his children were young, Case decorated a Norfolk pine with Christmas ornaments as a way to compromise with his Christian wife and give the Christmas experience to his children.

He said he did so in spite of the fact that many Jews take objection to having a Christmas tree, whose evergreen needles symbolize the eternal life of Christ to many Christians.

"There is controversy in the Jewish community about whether participation by intermarried families in Christian holiday celebrations is a serious problem or not," he said. "There are some leaders that think it is a bad thing. I'm very critical of that point of view."

The most important thing, he said, is that couples learn to respect and appreciate each other's religions.

At the Nguyen household, a statue of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ keeps watch over the assorted Hanukkah decorations and books from the Old Testament.

Year-round, and especially during the holidays, Lesley and Son's relationship is one of constant compromise and discovery.

Shared values have helped the pair come together despite differing faiths, Son said. Besides, he added, there is no stopping true love.

"We are picking a different path, but it's not impossible," he said of their interfaith marriage. "I'm not going to let this hinder our relationship or our feelings for each other."

Known in Hebrew as "magen David" (literally," shield of David"), it is more commonly recognized as the star of David, a six-point star. The symbol has origins in the Torah, and has been used as a symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism in Europe since the Middle Ages. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Elyssa Andrus writes for the Arizona Star.

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