Hanukkah, Christmas, and Your Interfaith Family: Various Approaches

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Return to the Guide to Hanukkah for Interfaith Families

Young Boy Lighting Menorah

This subject is sometimes termed “The December Dilemma,” but we’re not crazy about that term at InterfaithFamily. Do some interfaith couples struggle negotiating over their family’s holiday celebration options? Sure. But let’s remember some broader context: The holiday season, from Thanksgiving on, can be an emotionally overloaded time for many families in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with interfaith issues. Complicated family dynamics of many kinds can cause predicaments for parents. For some families, navigating interfaith questions may be a breeze compared to other family complexities that arise when relatives gather for these special occasions.

In other words, most American families have issues that present emotional challenges that they need to navigate skillfully during the holiday season – that’s just part of the package that comes with being a family. We think a good starting point for interfaith families is not to begin their December holiday discussions with the assumption that they’re mired in a dilemma. Remember, a true dilemma is a deeply vexing, intractable problem for which there is no good solution. But many interfaith families do find good solutions that make sense for their families and create beautiful enduring memories for their kids. Our aims at InterfaithFamily are to support your interfaith family as you discuss your December options, and to help synagogues and other Jewish organizations develop a culture of welcoming so that your family finds warmth and inclusive community there.

“Pre-existing Conditions”

No, we’re not talking about health insurance – rather, we mean the pre-existing cultural conditions that many Jews and Christians bring to the discussion of the December holidays. These are cultural trends that tend to have affected most Jewish or Christian partners in an interfaith marriage whether they realize it or not.

Ornaments

For Jewish-Americans, there’s the shared experience of being part of an historically vulnerable minority group. Some Jews find Christmas celebrations fun and choose to join in – others feel encroached upon and grumpy over the ubiquitous presence of Santa and Joy to the World. Also, some Jews with a strong knowledge of Jewish history associate Christmas with earlier, darker eras when Jewish communities sometimes faced hostility or worse around Christmas or Easter time. Different Jews have different reactions to the widespread presence of Christmas decor, music, religious imagery, etc.

Christians who’ve partnered romantically with Jews also bring their own set of circumstances and experiences to these holidays. Some Christians have always had thoroughly secular family celebrations of Christmas and may not understand why their
Jewish partners – especially if they are not traditionally observant Jews – are so easily triggered. Christians who grew up in devout families may have their own distress over the crass commercializing of Christmas, even if they are no longer deeply religious themselves.

The bottom line is everyone who lives in America brings some pre-existing experiences and patterns of thought to the winter holiday season. Whether people find themselves struggling over questions that need exploring, and maybe even negotiating, varies from person to person. At InterfaithFamily, we hope to support couples to cultivate trust and goodwill within their family unit as they explore what they’re bringing to these questions. We’re your allies as you discuss your hopes and wishes for how your interfaith family approaches this confluence of two of the most popular holidays in our society.

Children

For children of all backgrounds in America, Christmas is really a big deal, whether they celebrate it or not. The whole world around American children is going mad for Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and presents. Strangers approach on the street and sweetly wish us “Merry Christmas,” and kids who don’t celebrate Christmas don’t always know how to respond. Sometimes interfaith parents have to deal with sensitive issues of church/state separation. In some communities, public schools may appear to cross inappropriate lines in Christmas-themed concerts that may relegate Hanukkah to “token song” status or insist on kids of different faiths singing very religious Christmas songs.

Christmas Cookies

The healthiest thing parents in interfaith families can do is talk to each other in advance and figure out what your shared, core values are. Preparing your kids beforehand for situations that may come up will help them know who they are – they are the children of your loving, thoughtful, interfaith family. They need to know from their parents that that’s completely OK and they can be proud of it. These tricky situations – the Hebrew school teacher who scolds a child in front of his classmates when the child innocently mentions that his home has a Christmas tree next to the menorah; the Christian teacher who starts talking about her passionate religious belief in Jesus in the public school – these aren’t easy scenes to navigate for grown-ups or children.

And yet, these bumps in the road aren’t all bad. They present interfaith families with important opportunities to embrace the best ideals that form the foundation of our free, open, pluralistic society. Pre-teaching your kids about these kinds of situations gives you a chance to explain what your family values most and how it looks at the December holidays. It also gives you a chance to encourage your kids to learn how to be both compassionate and assertive – how to stand up for themselves if they aren’t being treated with respect, but also how to give others the benefit of the doubt and refrain from pouncing on people too easily.

Telling Your Kids Your Family’s “Founding Story”

Credit: Sandor-Weisz/flickr

The unfortunate attitude that assumes that all interfaith families create problems for their kids and their faith communities is thankfully receding somewhat, but it’s still out there and your kids may encounter it in a number of different settings during the holiday season. This is part of the “dilemma” mindset. One way to counteract those messages is for parents of interfaith families to tell your children your family’s “founding story” in positive terms, including the interfaith aspects, and to reassure them that who they are is a blessing just as they are. If others are telling your kids that there’s something wrong with their family make-up, you can empower your kids by teaching them that the world needs many different kinds of people and different kinds of families.

We encourage interfaith families to talk about your winter holiday choices and your values, make the decisions you need to make, communicate the info in age-appropriate ways to your kids and your close friends and family, and then – when unexpected challenges happen – back each other up as parents. In two parent households, if one partner realizes that s/he would like to modify the family’s December holiday game plan, it will probably be easier to have that conversation privately after this year’s holidays are over.

The Guide to Hanukkah for Interfaith Families is also available in PDF.