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.
Dear Dr. Paula: Confused by My Boyfriend's Family's Religious Christmas
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 just visited my boyfriend's parents for the first time over Christmas and was overwhelmed by my feelings during the visit. Certainly Nicholas, who comes from a very religious Catholic family, tried to prepare me for what I would encounter at his childhood home--a huge nativity scene, daily prayers, Bible readings, Masses, and sleeping with a cross over my bed. Even though he told me in advance that his family truly celebrated Christmas as the festival of Jesus' birth, I did not expect the discomfort I experienced throughout the entire holiday week. I know Nick is deeply religious but I've never seen him pray before. He really seemed to derive meaning from his family's rituals and it all made me feel like a genuine outsider. What do I do with my mixed-up emotions? How do I tell my Jewish parents about Nick's family?
I often encourage interfaith couples to have that significant first meeting of each other's parents at non-religious times so that you can get to know each other without the additional emotional issues that inevitably arise during religious holidays or life-cycle moments. Since you combined your first meeting of Nick's parents with a religious holiday of tremendous significance to them, you coupled the naturally intense feelings of meeting his family for the first time with your first visit to his childhood home, and then added in a first experience of Christmas as a truly meaningful religious celebration. It is no wonder that your emotions are on overload.
You would naturally feel anxious meeting Nick's parents for the first time; keep in mind that you are just beginning to establish your relationship with them. Also, seeing Nick's childhood home for the first time and absorbing its religious symbols should feel both new and strange. My hunch is that Nick, too, experienced initial discomfort and may have felt like an "outsider" visiting your childhood home for the first time. Probably as Nick observed differences between your family's environment and the home he grew up in, he had some "mixed-up" emotions. Often the very religious celebrations and symbols that always make one partner feel comfortable and "at home" may cause the other partner to feel like "an outsider," particularly on those first visits to each other's homes. Ask Nick about these feelings and realize that these are the natural reactions you both should experience. (Just think about visiting one of your friend's parents' homes for the first time, and how it is so natural to make comparisons and find differences to the home you grew up in.)
I am glad that you shared Christmas with Nick and his family, even though it was unfortunate that this was also your first meeting with his parents and your first visit to his childhood home. Since religious holidays only occur once a year, it is important that interfaith couples maximize every opportunity to observe and experience each other's different religious rituals, otherwise you would not be able to observe Nick celebrate his holiday until another full year had passed.
As part of an interfaith couple, you should not expect yourself to be an active participant in religious rites that are not your own; your role is to help your partner and your partner's family enjoy their holiday. Again, were Nick to be in your family's Jewish home for a first Pesach (Passover) or Shabbat (Sabbath), I assume that he would be watching your celebration, feeling somewhat like an outsider as he observed your family's traditions and religious rituals. Nick will not derive the meaning you derive from your faith and family traditions, and it will take him several visits over several years unlike he no longer experiences that "outsider" feeling.
Clearly, Nick's family values the real meaning in Christmas and infuses this significant holiday with the holiness it deserves. Isn't Nick's deep feeling about his faith and his family something that you admire? Isn't it a positive thing to infuse religious holidays with their real meaning, rather than just experiencing blander, secular celebrations?
You need to let yourself absorb all the newness you experienced over the holidays while visiting Nick's childhood home. Give yourself time to understand all the things that make Nick who he is, including his family and his family's faith. Give yourself time to calm your "mixed-up emotions." Some time after you've found this calm, it will be important to tell your parents that Nick and his family derive significant religious meaning from their Catholicism and faith symbols and traditions. I hope you and your parents similarly find deep meaning in Judaism and your faith traditions.
Interfaith couples do not need to give up their faiths and family religious traditions in order to succeed in their relationships, but they do need to understand and appreciate their faith and family differences. This understanding takes time. You will have the full year to get to know his parents and establish a relationship with them. I hope the year ahead will include some additional visits to Nick's childhood home and to your home at non-holiday times! I hope that next year, being with Nick as he and his family celebrate their Christmas holiday, things will feel less overwhelmingly new for you. Perhaps you will be able to enjoy watching Nick's pleasure at being with his family as they celebrate a meaningful religious holiday surrounded by the memories of his childhood home. I hope you will even smile as you realize that the unfamiliar can become familiar with the passage of time.