Wendy Weltman Palmer M.S.W, is a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in interfaith couple counseling. Her "Dear Wendy" advice column has been seen in these pages.
Getting Through The December Holidays
Why is this season so hard on interfaith couples?
Then again, who does NOT have a hard time during the holiday season?
My Christian friends bemoan the mass commercialization of Christmas, but struggle where to draw the line on the presents and the parties. One acquaintance, a dedicated churchgoer, half-joked she was thinking about asking her doctor for medication because it was only October and the stress was already beginning to build. Last year, she said, "Christmas just about did me in."
My Jewish friends plan their own shadow celebrations, Chinese dinners and an outing to the movies on Christmas Day, but there remains this funny feeling of missing out. At no other time of year are Jews reminded so vividly of their "otherness." The tug toward assimilation is particularly strong for Jewish parents who want to shield their child from the pain of feeling different, and perhaps inferior. In addition, since parents in general are loathe to deprive their children of anything, many Jewish parents have said yes to Santa Claus just because it seems easier at the time to pre-empt the envy (and the whining). The fact that many Jews grew up in homes where both sides of the family were identifiably Jewish and yet they had a "Chanukah bush" in the living room attests to the deep anxiety Jews feel about being Jews during December. Since I work in the South, people tell me it's a Southern Jewish thing. But I've heard similar stories from folks growing up in the West and even on the East coast. As one Jewish woman put it, "It's not easy being the only DARK house on the street."
There is also the mystery, the magic, of Christmas. Not only is Christmas "the happiest time of the year," but it is also the season of miracles. Perhaps because I grew up learning too many carols about "peace on earth and good will toward men," and watching too many movies on TV about people being "touched by an angel," I've always been struck by the majesty and power of Christmas. It's a lovely holiday with a holy-day message that can't be beat.
No wonder interfaith couples get all tied up with knots in December. It's simply an intense time of year, fraught with emotional messages from the outside culture as well as one's own psyche. What Christian parent would want to deprive a child of the sweet and happy memories they themselves acquired at Christmas time? What of the Jewish partner whose Jewish identity has always hung on what he is not? Why would he willingly bring into his house a Christmas tree, this most un-Jewish of symbols, this most descriptive of "markers"?
One Jewish woman who grew up celebrating Christmas with her Jewish relatives stays perpetually on edge during the holiday season. She feels that because of her interfaith marriage she has to remain extra-vigilant about introducing any Christmas "joy" to her children who are being raised as Jews, lest they become confused. One non-observant Christian woman who has agreed to raise a Jewish family is deeply hurt by her Jewish husband's lack of tolerance for the few Christmas traditions she associates with her childhood.
For interfaith couples these predictable conflicts are ultimately attached to deep feelings of loss, guilt, and anxiety.
How, then, to get through it?
First, try to identify and then understand the underlying feelings that are making it difficult for you and your partner to come up with a resolution to your December "dilemma." Are there feelings of loss? Loss of what? A young woman in one of my interfaith couple groups spoke of her sense of liberation when she had finally worked through her feelings of having to "give up" Christmas in order to honor the decision that she and her husband had made to have a Jewish home. She came to see that she did not have to forsake her memories of Christmases past. She realized that what was most important to her was the sense of closeness she felt with her family at that special time and the comfort of tradition, both of which she could choose to create in her own way when she had her own children. One Jewish man had to admit to himself that he did not care a whit what his home looked like in the month of December. However, he felt guilty and sad that the Christmas tree telegraphed to his family, particularly his mother, that he had chosen a different path than had been intended for him.
Second, understand that the process of decoding your needs and deciding on your December traditions is an evolving one. Your decisions regarding holiday practices, as well as those about other elements of your interfaith relationship, may well change as your relationship grows and matures. And sometimes you don't even know where the line is until you've crossed it. In the first year of our interfaith marriage, we returned from a honeymoon in South America where we had picked up several handmade objects that are sold as Christmas ornaments in the States. I volunteered that it would be fun to sprinkle them about the apartment in December. I found, though, that I literally could not stomach the funky straw wreath on the front door. My anxious, visceral reaction told me that my experiment with a folk art Christmas was over.
I have spoken little about Hanukkah here. While some interfaith couples handle their December dilemma by turning Hanukkah into a Jewish Christmas, I think that practice sidesteps the issue. The central challenge for the interfaith couple in December, as in every other month, is to figure out what kind of religious home life they want to have as individuals and as a family. The emotional heat of Christmas envelops nearly everyone during December, regardless of religious persuasion. Each interfaith couple must work its way through the glare to choose its own lights.