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December Dilemma: Interfaith Couples Face Emotional Choices: Christmas, Hanukkah, or Both?

This article is reprinted with permission of The Dallas Morning News. Visit www.dallasnews.com.

December 17, 2004. For interfaith couples, this is the season of the December Dilemma.

Is it OK to put up a Christmas tree? What about presents for the kids? Should Christian spouses take part in Hanukkah celebrations?  

More than any other time of year, Jewish-Christian couples wrestle with what to do during the December holidays. That's when the emotional tug of family memories can force religious and cultural differences to the table.

Even when an interfaith couple is living almost exclusively a Jewish life, the non-Jewish spouse may want a Christmas tree, said Renee Karp who teaches at Dallas' Temple Emanu-El, where interfaith couples make up 15 to 20 percent of the congregation's 2,600 families.

"It is a big issue," she said.

Jews, in particular, increasingly fret that interfaith holiday celebrations will undermine traditional Jewish observance. According to a survey by United Jewish Communities, there are 5.2 million Jews in America, and nearly a third are married to non-Jews. In the last five years, nearly half of the American Jews who married chose non-Jewish spouses.

The December Dilemma grows even more complicated with rituals and celebrations involving extended families.

One young Jewish mother, for instance, said she didn't want her infant to receive Christmas gifts. Ms. Karp suggested that she ask her in-laws as early as June if they'd give Hanukkah presents instead.

"The last thing you should ever do is offend his family," Ms. Karp said. "There are people we love for whom Christmas is important. What do you do? You honor them."

Veteran journalists Steve and Cokie Roberts have done just that for 38 years and could be the poster couple for a successful interfaith marriage.

Steve, a columnist and former New York Times reporter, is deeply committed to his Jewish faith. Cokie, a news analyst for National Public Radio and ABC News, is a devout Catholic.

In From This Day Forward, their 2000 book about marriage, they shared their secret: Each is fiercely supportive of the other's religion.

"That's one of the things that attracted us to each other," Steve said in an interview.

Cokie, whose mother served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, supplies her children with Judaica for the holidays. And Steve gladly accompanies his wife to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

This year, they planned a Hanukkah party for about 35 people, where they lit candles, ate traditional foods and recounted the Hanukkah story. The next day, they set up their Christmas tree, topped with a star of David made by their kids.

"I know that some Jewish partners in mixed marriages do struggle with the Christmas tree," Steve said. "My belief is that a mixed marriage enlarges your experience. It doesn't limit it."

He is critical of Jewish clergy who "send a message of exclusivity" by opposing interfaith marriage.

"I think that's profoundly misguided," he said. "Many of these couples are going to marry anyway." The question they ought to ask, he said, is: "How can we respect, embrace and honor each other's traditions?"

Many couples, however, say that's not easy when it comes to favorite holiday traditions. Jane Kaplan, author of Interfaith Families, described a typical point of friction: The Jewish spouse isn't comfortable celebrating Christmas, but the Christian spouse misses a familiar holiday.

"Even when the Jewish spouse knows it's the fair thing to do, he or she seems to have a lot of trouble," Ms. Kaplan said. "They hope their spouse doesn't bring in the tree too early, and they want to get it out soon after Christmas is over."

The tree is a particularly sore subject, she said.

"The Christmas tree just seems to epitomize Christianity. It doesn't seem as big a deal for the Christian to participate in Hanukkah, or even put a menorah in the window," she said.

Some Jews find it hard to tolerate Christmas symbols of any kind.

Faylinda Lindner is a Jewish grandmother in Dallas whose three sons all married women who were born Catholic.

One daughter-in-law converted, one agreed to raise her children Jewish, and the third is raising hers in both Jewish and Episcopal traditions. Mrs. Lindner said that's a hard concept to grasp.

"I love all my grandchildren, but this is difficult," she said, recalling when her oldest grandchild opted not to have a Bar Mitzvah.

She said her children don't understand her reluctance. But being born in the Holocaust years makes it hard for her to be supportive of modern customs that, in her view, stand to weaken Judaism.

"It's the problem of numbers for me. Every loss is a big loss," she said. "I'm sad that after 5,000 years, it may end with my grandson in that particular line. Gentile parents don't seem to have the same problem. They see Christianity as an extension of Judaism."

At Christmastime, she chooses not to visit the San Antonio son whose children are being raised in both faiths. Instead, she gives Hanukkah presents at Thanksgiving--she wrapped the present for the eldest grandchild, the one who declined a Bar Mitzvah, in plain paper--and donates to charities in honor of her grandchildren as a further holiday gesture.

"I can't proselytize my grandchildren, but I'm a Jewish grandparent," she said. "We don't go to their home in December. It's painful for me." She added, "Christmas is very seductive for children."

Rabbi Sam Gordon of Sukkat Shalom, a Chicago-area synagogue made up primarily of interfaith couples, agrees that Christmas is more emotionally loaded for Jews than Hanukkah is for Christians.

Hanukkah's message of freedom is universal and easily celebrated by all, he said. Also, it's not as theologically important to Jews as the Passover seder or Friday night Shabbat.

Christmas, on the other hand, is the most family-oriented of Christian holidays, he said.

"The memories are of family, not a theological event. But it takes time for the Jewish partner to realize it's not a threat to their Judaism."

Rabbi Gordon recommends that Jews in mixed marriages learn to see the value in Christmas for their spouses.

"The neutering of Christmas is not the best solution. Appreciating each in authentic selves is far preferable," he said.

And Jewish-Christian differences are just the tip of the iceberg, he added. The holidays get even more complicated when ethnic traditions, such as Hispanic and African-American celebrations, are added to the mix.

Alice Platt can relate. The Dallas woman said keeping her Chinese heritage is important, even though she married her Jewish college sweetheart and has agreed to raise their two children as Jews.

Her solution? She fries egg rolls at Hanukkah--right beside the latkes.

Raised by a Taiwanese father whose parents were Buddhist and a Cantonese mother who was open to a variety of faiths, Mrs. Platt struggled with choosing one religious path. But, she said, it was easy to accept the cultural side of Judaism.

"How the Chinese feel about their family is how Jews feel about theirs. They treat elders with respect, reach out to others, [emphasize] education and being devoted to your children and family," she said.

Her appreciation of the religious side of Judaism is growing, as well. It helps that her son attends a Jewish day school.

"The games you play, the songs you sing, the foods you eat--I'm learning through him," she said.

The Platts celebrate only the Jewish holidays in their home, but it's taken awhile for her parents to remember that, she said.

"My mom would go shopping for Christmas towels and buy a set for me and for her."

They spend Christmas Eve with her parents, and at least one night of Hanukkah with her in-laws, exchanging the appropriate gifts with each.

To ease tensions, Jews should try to view Christmas as a family gathering rather than a theological event, said Ed Case, director of InterfaithFamily.com, a nonprofit organization that encourages interfaith families to preserve Jewish traditions.

"It's like going to someone else's birthday party. You can go to it and celebrate with them, but it's not your own," he said.

Surveys taken by InterfaithFamily.com show that young people are more open to sharing holiday celebrations than their parents and grandparents were. In one, 80 percent of younger couples said they celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas, and most looked forward to the holidays.

More than half have a Christmas tree, though 25 percent said they are somewhat uncomfortable with it.

"A lot of Jewish intellectuals say if there's a tree in the house, the kids will end up not Jewish. I disagree with that wholeheartedly," said Mr. Case, whose wife is Christian.

He frowns on hybrid celebrations--the suddenly trendy "Christmakkuh."

"To mush them together weakens their integrity," he said.

Many couples change their minds about the holidays over the years, Mr. Case added.

"When my wife and I were dating, I was physically uncomfortable with Christmas. If anyone would say I'd be OK celebrating Christmas, I'd have said they were crazy. Couples negotiate over time."

Wayne and Beth Applebaum at Temple Shalom in Dallas say they've never had to negotiate the holidays. At their home, there is no December Dilemma. He makes potato latkes. She decorates for Christmas.

Wayne heads adult education at Temple Shalom. Beth is a practicing Catholic. They're raising their son Aaron, 11, as a Jew. But Beth's son from a previous marriage is a senior at a Catholic college--and he's dating a Muslim.

The Applebaums offer simple advice for those struggling over the holidays: relax and enjoy.

"Having a Christmas tree does not mean I believe in Jesus. It means I respect my wife's religion," he said.

"What do I care if she goes to a church and I go to a synagogue? It's not a competition. It's not my God versus your God. It's the same God."

Eight tips for handling the December holidays

1. Remember that it's OK to participate in the holiday as a way to respect your spouse and extended family.

2. Keep the focus on the children's needs. What kids love most about Christmas is not the presents but the family togetherness. Help children understand they can enjoy Christmas and Hanukkah activities without betraying either parent or their religious upbringing. Use the holidays to reinforce the children's religious identity.

3. If your Jewish child is uncomfortable with singing Christmas carols at school, ask the principal to broaden the holiday song repertoire to include Hanukkah songs.

4. Rather than asking in-laws to give Christmas or Hanukkah presents, ask them to give gifts wrapped in paper that indicates the holiday the children do celebrate.

5. If your children want a Christmas tree in your home, sit down with your partner and discuss what the holiday means to each of you. Be clear about underlying issues. Is it your own reluctance to have a tree or menorah in your home or is it a fear about how relatives might react?

6. Giving in on a holiday becomes less significant if you remember that the main concern is to decide how your family will live religiously throughout the year, not just in December.

7. Allow your initial decisions to change as you and your family evolve. Certain things that may have seemed important at one stage in your marriage may become less important later on. Pay attention to your own inner feelings.

8. Develop new traditions together. Denying a need will breed resentment, but negotiating a mutually acceptable way to celebrate will strengthen the relationship and unify the family.

From www.InterfaithFamily.com

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. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." 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. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." 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.) The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. 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. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Robin Galiano Russell

Robin Galiano Russell, a Dallas freelance writer, can be reached at rrscribe@excite.com.

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