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Survey Says: Interfaith Families Keep Holidays Seperate

This article is reprinted with permission of the Cleveland Jewish News. Visit www.clevelandjewishnews.com.

Thanks to the popular Fox drama "The O.C.," the interfaith holiday of "Chrismukkah" has drawn plenty of media attention this season.  

Seth Cohen, a character on the hit show, is raised by a Protestant mother and Jewish father and uses the term Chrismukkah to describe his holiday traditions. This year, Chrismukkah runs a full 18 days, from the start of Chanukah on Dec. 7 all the way through Christmas Day.

Combining elements of Jewish, Christian and secular traditions, Chrismukkah is meant to reflect the growing trend of interfaith marriages and multicultural families; from 13% of all Jewish marriages before 1970, to 47% between 1996 and 2001. There's even a line of greeting cards featuring matzah ball snowmen, reindeer with menorah for antlers and kosher fruitcake ("Controversial cards meld Chanukah and Christmas," CJN, Dec. 10).

Don't believe the hype, says Edmund Case, publisher of InterfaithFamily.com. According to a recent survey taken by his independent, non-profit advocacy membership association, 81% of respondents stated that they participate in separate Christmas and Chanukah celebrations as a way of sharing in, honoring and respecting the traditions of both sides of the family. The survey fielded responses from 199 people nationwide in October.

South Euclid resident Rick Fromet and his wife Lorie give equal attention to both holidays. They light the menorah with their 6-year-old daughter, Samantha, and, like over half of the interfaith families who took part in the survey (the Fromets did not participate), they have a Christmas tree.

Neither holiday is overemphasized, says Fromet. The couple reads to Samantha about the religious implications of both Christmas and Chanukah and their daughter receives one "big" gift for each holiday.

"We want her to respect both religions," Fromet explains. The Fromets will let Samantha decide her own religious identity.

It's difficult to compete with the "glamour and glitz" of Christmas, admits Mike Schlessel, a father of three from South Euclid. He would prefer to raise his kids as Jews, but he and his wife, Ann-Marie, want to give them a choice.

But that is a decision for the future. For now, his children are too young (the oldest is 6) to appreciate the holidays in a religious context. "It's more symbolic for them: They like lighting the menorah candles, and they like our Christmas tree," says Schlessel. "We're not trying to push anything on them."

Hybridizing the holidays is a bad idea, especially for couples with children, notes Case, a former corporate lawyer and father of two from Massachusetts. "Chanukah and Christmas should have their own integrity. Blending them together them can be confusing for your kids."

The common perception about interfaith families, Case remarks, is that the holidays can be challenging and unpleasant as family members struggle with identity crises, conflicting emotions and family guilt, all symptoms of the so-called "December Dilemma."

The vast majority of people responding to his organization's survey are thriving, not merely surviving, during the holidays, he maintains.

Case, who celebrated both holidays for 30 years until his wife converted to Judaism, says his organization's mission is to encourage interfaith families "to make Jewish choices." However, he adds, it is important to be tolerant of your spouse's wish to celebrate Christmas.

Case believes it's better to raise a child with one religious identity. For a child, choosing one religion over another might be akin to choosing one parent over another, he says.

Like 80% of survey participants, Case raised his two children as Jews. According to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, about 33% of intermarried families are doing the same.

A primary way to resolve potential conflicts over the December holidays is to treat Chanukah, not Christmas, as a religious holiday, says Case. As one survey respondent said, "We view Christmas as a secular holiday with Santa, without the religious aspect. It has become, for our family, a chance to get together and celebrate."

Case's family would light a menorah and exchange presents at home while visiting relatives for the Christmas celebration. This way, "attending a Christmas party is similar to having a good time at someone else's birthday party," he says. "It doesn't necessarily mean it's your birthday, or your holiday."

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. 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.) Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover.
Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a senior staff reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.

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