Bridging the Holidays: Interfaith Families Learn to Respect Both Faith Traditions


Reprinted with permission from Visit

Maurine and Brian Smith of Chicago had parenting discussions long before they became parents. They were not debating discipline or bedtime. They were talking about which faith they would use to raise their children.

Maurine, who is Catholic, and Brian, who is Jewish, decided since they are both strongly bound to their own religion, they would raise their children, Margaret, 4, and Charlie, 2, in both.

“We have a Christmas tree, a Menorah, Santa … the whole nine yards,” says Maurine. They also attend Mass and have a monthly Shabbat dinner. “We don’t want to have Mommy’s holiday competing with Daddy’s. We want a united front as a family.”

The Smiths are just one of thousands of multi-faith families in the United States. According to a 2001 study by the City University of New York, 22 percent of the 50,000 households polled reported mixed religious identification. The study’s authors estimate 28 million Americans live in an interfaith family–and expect those numbers to rise.

When children come into the picture, those parents must make a difficult decision: How do they raise their kids? And during the holidays, what do they celebrate?

Whether families practice one or two religions, the key is teaching kids to respect both, experts say. For families who expose their kids to both faiths, that means separating the traditions to avoid confusion. For families who raise their children in one religion, that means celebrating the secular aspects of the other, such as gift-giving.

“It is very important for children of mixed-faith families to understand and participate in both traditions,” says Rev. John Cusick, director of the Young Adult Ministry at the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“This can be a way to teach them to respect other holidays,” says Edmund Case, president and publisher of, a nonprofit Web site and online magazine based in Massachusetts.

Following both faiths

Families who raise their kids in both religions say they want their kids to appreciate both faiths and choose which is right for them.

Alan Ward, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, encourages this approach. “All children are a combination of Mom and Dad, and hence it is only natural for them to grow up with a part of each parent,” he says.

Raising a child in one faith can result in a bias toward that parent, he says. “Educate the child as to the value and significance of each religion, to the point that the child can feel that they have a bonus of two views, as opposed to feeling that they have to choose one or the other.”

As their kids were growing up, Patty and David Kovacs of Chicago taught them about both Catholicism and Judaism. Kelly, 14, chose Catholicism. Their 17-year-old son, Jack, “is still figuring it out and he can take as long as he wants to,” says David Kovacs.

That openness can teach kids tolerance, says Eileen O’Farrell Smith, director of The Interfaith Union,, a resource center in Chicago, and author of Making Our Way to Shore: A Celebration of Hebrew Naming and Baptism. “It’s easy for kids to accept that they belong to two faiths–it’s grandparents and parents’ friends who are worried about labels,” says O’Farrell Smith.

But Cusick and Case agree it’s not a good idea to blend religions. Case feels “religion blending” is the result of commercialization–convincing people to buy “menorahments” and “kosher egg nog,” for example–rather than meeting the needs of interfaith families. “If you have to hang a stocking, I wouldn’t recommend a blue and white one with the Star of David on it,” he says. “A red and green one would make more sense, theologically as well as to kids who can then see the distinction.”

Case compares it to having a good time at someone else’s birthday party. It doesn’t mean it’s your birthday–or your holiday. But you can still have fun.

Grounding kids in one faith

Other families, such as Holly Utter and Corey Kessler of River Forest, ground their children in one faith from the beginning.

“It was a difficult decision,” says Holly. “Even though it was hard for me to explain it to my dad and grandma, for me it wasn’t the end of the world.”

She was OK with raising her girls, Claudette, 7, and Audrey, 4, as Jewish as long as they could celebrate Christmas and she did not have to convert. “It made sense to me how important it was for my husband because of the Holocaust.”

Holly admits to feeling left out at first. She combated the situation by becoming active in the girls’ Jewish preschool and learning to read Hebrew.

But the family supports Holly’s beliefs, too. One year, Corey bought Holly a train set to go around her Christmas tree. Holly makes dessert when the family gathers for Jewish holidays. And Santa does visit their home.

But the questions have already begun. Claudette wondered why her cousins had a Communion. Her parents explained it was a custom for cousins from Mommy’s side of the family, and that Claudette would have a Bat Mitzvah.

Interfaith marriages do not just come from Judeo-Christian backgrounds. The Kentucky-based Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources,, holds conferences for interfaith couples. A recent conference included a session for Muslim-Christian couples.

Lincoln Park parents Michelle and Faisal Yousuf are one such couple who are raising their kids in one faith–Islam.

However, they support Michelle’s Catholic faith by celebrating Christmas and other holidays with Michelle’s parents. After Christmas Eve dinner, Faisal stays home with 3-year-old Maliha, while Michelle attends Mass with her parents.

But Maliha understands Eid is her religious holiday. She attends prayers and Eid parties with Faisal’s family. “Eid” means “celebration,” and Muslims celebrate it twice a year. Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting, and Eid-ul-Adha marks the end of Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Michelle and Faisal try to fly to Pakistan so Maliha can celebrate in a Muslim environment.

“Even though she is still little, Maliha knows that ‘Daddy and I are Muslim and Mommy is Catholic,’ ” says Michelle.

To avoid sending mixed messages, grandparents should be sensitive to their grandchildren’s upbringing. Maliha gets presents from her maternal grandparents, but is taught Eid is her real holiday.

The Yousufs know a bumpy road may lie ahead as Maliha and her 3½-month-old sister, Amani, grow up. They anticipate lots of questions, but plan to highlight the similarities between Christianity and Islam, not just the differences.

Finding support

There is no right or easy answer. That is what Joan and Stephan Kohnke of North Riverside are discovering. They are expecting their first child in March and are considering the options.

Joan joins Stephan’s family for the Jewish High Holidays, while Stephan attends Christmas dinners with her family. They want to expose their children to several religions and let them choose. “I wouldn’t mind even if they opt for a third religion,” says Joan.

Psychologists say it’s important for interfaith couples to discuss their expectations before marrying. They say interfaith unions may explain, in part, an increased demand for premarital counseling.

“Too often, unvoiced expectations of marriage partners, based upon different religious perspectives, create unnecessary conflicts because the partner has not been given adequate opportunity to decide whether they are able or willing to meet those expectations,” Ward says.

The Interfaith Union holds monthly meetings for interfaith families with young children, as well as a “Right of Initiation” ceremony combining a baptism and a Hebrew naming ceremony. “We see ourselves as a revolving door,” says O’Farrell Smith. “We welcome people in and send them where they need to go.”

Each family can create an arrangement that works for them. If religion is important, it should be that way throughout the year–not just in December.

Looking back, our children might not remember the color of gift paper in which their presents were wrapped. They might not even remember the presents. What they will remember is the holiday time spent as a family.