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Dear Dr. Paula: On Christmas Trees

InterfaithFamily.com was pleased to offer "Dear Dr. Paula," written by Dr. Paula Brody, the nationally prominent specialist on interfaith family issues. Dr. Brody's monthly advice column responded to email letters submitted by our readers.

Dear Dr. Paula,

I am the Jewish partner in an interfaith relationship. My fiancee is a Catholic woman. We have been dating seriously for three years and just became engaged. However, as the holidays approach, she wants to celebrate Christmas together in our apartment. I am uncomfortable having a Christmas tree in my home. I cannot make her understand how I am feeling about this issue. Do you have suggestions for me?

Alex

Dear Alex,

First let me extend congratulations on your engagement. This is the first of many holidays that you will share together in your married lives. Thus, the upcoming December holiday season provides an important opportunity to understand how both of you feel about your holidays and what both of you need as you support each other in your interfaith marriage.

Your letter emphasized your feelings about your fiancee's desire to celebrate her holiday in your shared home. What are her feelings? What does this holiday and its symbols mean to her? Ask your fiancee to share her feelings about Christmas with you. What are her childhood memories? Listen openly to the woman you love when she explains why this holiday is rich with traditions she would like to continue in some way, even though she has fallen in love with you and plans to share her life with someone from another faith background.

Remember, this is an important time in your relationship. You are just beginning to create memories together. Your partner needs you to understand what her holidays mean to her just as you want her to understand what your religious observances mean to you.

You, like many Jewish individuals, especially those in interfaith relationships, have many complex feelings about Christian religious symbols, including a Christmas tree. However, as someone in love with a Christian woman and planning to marry someone of another faith, it is critically important for you to begin to understand her Christianity and what her Christian holidays mean to her. Yes, you can share how you feel about a Christmas tree, but remember, your partner cannot give up meaningful rituals tied to her holidays any easier than you can. As a Catholic woman, she most likely didn't grow up with candles lit on Shabbat (the Sabbath) or matzah eaten at Passover. She is likely to feel the same discomfort with these traditions in her home as you feel having a tree. Think about it, would Shabbat candles or matzah be prohibited in your household because these are symbols of your Jewish holidays? Your willingness to learn about and experience aspects of your partner's Christian holidays will go a long way in her willingness to learn about and begin to experience your Jewish holidays.

Most important, feeling understood by your partner goes a long way to reaching compromises and commitments together. Instead of feeling like either of you are giving up or giving in, can you feel like you are both really giving to each other?

Often when our needs are understood and met, the intensity of our needs lessens. I would encourage you both to focus on shared holiday decisions for this year. Keep in mind that what you do in your home this first year together may not be what you do next year, or five or ten years from now. For both of you, your needs will change as your relationship grows.

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover.
Dr. Paula Brody

Dr. Paula Brody, Ed.D., LICSW, is director of Outreach Programs and Training for the Northeast Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the Reform movement), where she develops and coordinates a wide range of programs and services to welcome interfaith families into Reform congregations.

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