Celebrating Holidays in an Interfaith Stepfamily

By Dr. Jeffrey Greenhut


As a believing Jew, I love celebrating my Jewish religion and its holidays. Even after my divorce, at age fifty-two, I kept a kosher home, and dated mostly Jewish women. However, I’m not a typical urban/suburban Jewish male. I’m retired military, have a house full of firearms and the heads of dead animals, and vote Republican. Any or all of these traits caused my Jewish girlfriends, like my ex-wife, to seek men with whom they were more comfortable. So when I met a Christian woman who was happy with me as I was, I determined that our religious differences would be something to deal with, rather than a deal breaker.

Over the four years Betsy and I have been together, we have tried diligently to resolve our religious differences. Resolving our differences also means helping our children to become comfortable with them. It helps that Betsy is a liberal Protestant and that neither of us attends religious services regularly. Our situation works for most of the year, but at holiday time, be it Passover, Easter, the High Holy Days, Christmas, or Hanukkah, we are faced with the need to accommodate our differences.

Passover is probably the easiest. Since it was Jesus’ “Last Supper,” we can invite both Jewish and Christian family and friends to celebrate with us. I do modify the traditional seder to make it more welcoming and inclusive, but it remains firmly within my Jewish tradition and is still a family event–one that now includes my new love and her family. William, her sixteen-year-old resident son, felt strange the first few Passovers, given the unfamiliarity of the service, but he says he’s fine with it now.

Easter is more difficult. Despite the fact that Betsy does not see Jesus as divine, she does love Jesus as a remarkable teacher and prophet. I, on the other hand, have the typical antipathy of the Jew to Jesus, both as a supposedly divine figure (which I consider idolatry) and as the representative symbol of a culture that has defined Jews as the “other” for two millennia. Also making it difficult is that I’m an historian by profession and well aware that Easter has been the precipitating event for too many massacres of Jews throughout the centuries.

I have accompanied Betsy to Easter services, but I have to admit I’m not really comfortable there. Betsy doesn’t really empathize with the Jewish antipathy to the holiday, but, although she’d like to, refrains from giving my two daughters, Abby, sixteen, and Jennifer, thirteen, Easter baskets.

If Easter is the most difficult Christian holiday for me to deal with, the High Holy Days are equally difficult for Betsy. They’re not celebratory events and there is no festive meal or gifts to exchange. American Protestant Christianity has nothing similar, so Betsy can’t relate to it. Also, a good High Holiday service is atonement in itself, with hours of droning, boring, incomprehensible Hebrew. I attend because I really believe in the value of atonement and reflection, but when Betsy has accompanied me, her boredom and discomfort made it impossible for me to reflect and atone the way I wanted. She continues to want to share the day with me, but, while I really appreciate her willingness to join me, I’d rather observe them on my own. Now that we’re moving in together, I do anticipate some problems with my next fast, since it will be more difficult for me to maintain it with all around me eating and drinking. But I’ll just have to cross that bridge next year.

Christmas and Hanukkah we do together. We are no doubt helped in this by the fact that for Betsy, like for so many Americans, Christmas is not a religious observance, but sort of an American winter festival. Nonetheless, Christmas is still Betsy’s most important family holiday of the year. For me not to be a part of it is unthinkable to her. So, while it took me a few years to get used to, I’ve learned to pitch in and enjoy it. As soon as Thanksgiving passes, we bring up the boxes of decorations, put up the tree, and decorate the house. Sensitive to my feelings, she generally avoids specifically religious theme decorations, although her traditional angel stand atop the tree, and the decorative cross her mother gave her years ago, are displayed. I exchange gifts with Betsy and her family, and she and my children do the same. In short, I do my best to participate and enjoy the secular portions of the season.

My non-resident children seem comfortable both giving and receiving Christmas gifts with Betsy. Betsy’s son Will, whose father married a Jew who refuses to have any Christmas observances in her house, is just happy that he can continue to have Christmas somewhere.

For Hanukkah, we selected a menorah together, and light the candles jointly. If my children are visiting we exchange gifts, and I give something small to Betsy and her son at the time, saving my major gifts to them for Christmas morning. My own family and I continue to celebrate Hanukkah, exchanging gifts in the spirit of our own holiday. Betsy surprised me this year by decorating the dining room table with a Hanukkah motif. I was really pleased with her effort to bring my tradition into what has become our home.

Has accommodating our religious difference been stress free? No, but considering the numerous issues with which we have had to deal–money, relationships with our respective children, in-laws, resolving retirement dreams, and others–I have to say that holiday observances have been among the least difficult to resolve.

About Dr. Jeffrey Greenhut

Dr. Jeffrey Greenhut is profoundly Jewish, a professional military historian, retired military officer, and the father of three daughters and one son. He is engaged to Betsy Mead, a liberal Protestant. She has two sons.