Dr. June Andrews Horowitz is an Associate Professor in the Psychiatric-Mental Health Department of the School of Nursing at Boston College. She has more than a decade of experience leading counseling groups and workshops for interfaith couples and she is a member of the Regional Outreach Committee of the Northeast Region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Dr. Horowitz, her husband and three children are active members of Temple Beth David of the South Shore (a Reform synagogue) in Canton, Mass.
Facing the December Dilemma: Guidelines for Interfaith Couples
For interfaith couples involving a Jew and any gentile/non-Jew who celebrates Christmas, the December holidays are a yearly reminder that they don't share the same religious, ethnic or cultural background. From Thanksgiving on, as the Christmas shopping season is in full swing, Jews are faced with daily indications that they are a minority. In response, they ignore Christmas and feel left out of the mainstream, or they participate in Christmas and risk feeling that they've betrayed their heritage. Their non-Jewish partners, in contrast, often want to share Christmas activities and see requests from their partners to avoid or decrease Christmas observance at home as a painful loss. Thus, Christmas and Hanukkah observances can feel more like a crisis than a celebration, truly a December dilemma.
Common Concerns or "Why Is a Having a Christmas Tree an Issue?"
Although there are numerous issues involved with the December holidays, I would identify three major concerns based on my experience from working with interfaith couples.
Christmas as a Family Holiday versus a Religious Observance
Christmas symbolizes family togetherness for most gentile partners. While the religious significance of Christmas is important for many, the Christian partners I have known clearly differentiate their private religious observance from the shared Christmas activities involving family participation. Decorating the Christmas tree, for example, often is a cherished family tradition that they wish to share with their Jewish mates. Jews, on the other hand, tend to see Christmas activities and objects as expressions of Christian religious practice. This difference in perception leads to misunderstanding and hurt.
Christmas and Hanukkah as Identity Symbols
Each holiday may represent personal identity. When individuals join in a marriage or significant relationship, one's sense of being a separate person can be overshadowed by becoming a couple. In situations of interfaith relationships, issues are magnified if one person feels slighted by holiday plans. Thus, each partner's importance or power can seem to be measured by which holiday is given prominence.
Christmas and Hanukkah as Symbols of the Children's Religious Upbringing
When children are involved, holidays take on increased importance. If children are being raised as Christians or brought up in another tradition that observes Christmas, then the family celebrates Christmas without debate. Hanukkah may be included in holiday plans to recognize the Jewish parent's heritage. When the children are being raised as Jews, Christmas becomes a more complex issue. Some parents choose to observe Hanukkah exclusively at home to avoid confusing the children concerning their Jewish identity. They reason that having Christmas at home sends a mixed message that the children are both Jewish and Christian. Others decide to observe both holidays so that the children can appreciate dual traditions and so that they can have the family togetherness associated with Christmas for the non-Jewish parent. Some families who do not observe Christmas at home share Christmas with relatives--particularly the non-Jewish grandparents--in an effort to create a clearly Jewish home while honoring and enjoying the traditions of the non-Jewish parent and extended family. However, when issues concerning the children's religious identity remain unresolved, conflicts during the holidays typically intensify.
Guidelines for Negotiating the December Dilemma
Negotiating the December dilemma is seldom simple. Yet, caring, flexibility, sensitivity, and mutual respect can result in an effective plan for your family. These guidelines are based on the experiences of other interfaith couples who successfully negotiated their own approach to the holidays.
• Think about your personal holiday memories. What holiday practices and activities were important to you? What meaning do these observances have to you?
• If you haven't done so, share significant memories with your partner and ask about his or her family holidays. Your goal should be to understand each other's point of view and the meaning of the holidays rather than to "win" or pressure your partner to agree to do what you'd prefer.
• Talk about your concerns. For example, give voice to worries about confusing the children, upsetting extended family, failing to enjoy your own holiday, or losing a sense of your identity.
• Be open to compromise and looking at these issues in new ways. Try to work out a trial plan and evaluate how well it works after the holidays have ended. If children are old enough to express their thoughts and feelings, involve them in discussion and planning. As you try out approaches, keep in mind that plans can change next year and options you try could be an opportunity to make any holiday observance a creative and personal experience for your family.
• Explain your plans in advance to extended family and selected friends so that they will not feel left out and can know what to expect. Be respectful and inclusive when possible by showing that you have considered their views and feelings, but decide yourselves what is best for you as a couple or family.
• Most importantly, don't use the holiday season as a battleground to struggle over unresolved conflicts concerning your relationship, children, or extended families. Rather, use holiday planning as a chance to learn how to negotiate and resolve other issues in your lives together.
There is no one way to approach the December dilemma that works best for all interfaith couples. Couples devise a variety of successful solutions by working hard to understand their individual and family needs while jointly creating their own celebrations. Perhaps this year the holiday season will bring you closer if you reject confrontation and face the December dilemma within a true partnership. Happy holidays!
• Deciding what to do or not do for Christmas and Hanukkah is frequently a stressful process for interfaith couples.
• These holidays have many significant meanings for individuals. To work out options for holiday plans, it is helpful to identify personal and family concerns in an atmosphere of sensitivity and respect.
• When interfaith couples tune in to each other's needs rather than struggle over the holidays, they are more likely to negotiate a successful resolution to the December dilemma.