During the holidays, ask any married couple about holiday stress and you just might hear stories about rushing from holiday event to holiday event, squeezing in time to share important family traditions and finding ways to teach children about the true meaning of the holidays amidst the hustle and bustle.
But what happens when the two sides of the family don’t share the same backgrounds, traditions or religious beliefs? Finding ways to celebrate the holidays from different perspectives is a difficult endeavor even for the tightest knit families—but with the right approach, families can find ways to celebrate all aspects of their faiths and communities harmoniously.
Meet Two Local Interfaith Families
When Jennifer and Jeb Swan of Edmond decided to get married, they had to come up with a plan for also marrying their different religious affiliations. With Jennifer coming from a Christian background and Jeb from a Jewish family, they had to find a way to navigate their different belief systems. “Jeb and I fell in love knowing we had different backgrounds,” Jennifer explains. “He is a little torn, but in our home, Christianity is taught to the kids."
In their household, harmonious family interactions and holiday celebrations are primarily based in respect. “We respect each other’s family values, and that is why we have separate celebrations with each of our families,” Jennifer says. “We discussed it before we got married and we decided the children would be raised Christian. But, if one of them decides to be Jewish later, then that is their decision. Jeb’s family would most likely want his children to grow up Jewish, but they respect our wishes.”
When it comes to the holidays, the Swans take a separate-but-equal approach to holiday traditions. “His side of the family celebrates at their home every year. We never bring up the cross or Jesus in front of some of them, especially the elders. The children do love getting a gift every day for a week [with his family],” she explains. “On Christmas day we have a big feast with my side of the family, where we pray before we eat and open a ton of presents, even some from Santa, and watch classic Christmas movies.”
As far as her children go, Jennifer says they openly share about the faiths of both sides of the family. “My oldest does understand the difference in Judaism and Christianity,” she explains. “Our daughter is too young, but she loves getting presents and she also follows the kosher food [laws] when around his family.”
For Jennifer, family harmony is an outcome of open-minded appreciation. “Just respect the family home you are in and their ways of religion,” she advises. “If your religion is different, be open minded and look at it as a cultural experience.”
Laura and Jonathan Burdette of Oklahoma City agree. “My husband grew up in the Disciples of Christ church, and was pretty open-minded,” Laura, who was raised in the Jewish faith, explains. “When we were dating, I did a lot with the temple and we decided to raise our children in the Jewish faith. Judiasim is passed down through the mother, so even if we had raised them Christian, they would be recognized as Jews.” Even while raising their children under the beliefs of Judaism, the Burdettes find balance by incorporating both sides of their family’s faith, including her husband’s Christian upbringing. “We do Hanukkah as well as Christmas, so the kids do get to experience a more traditional Christmas and midnight mass. They don’t have any confusion. They’ve always known they are Jewish and that we also choose to do some of the ‘fun parts’ of the Christian holiday as well.”
For the Burdettes, a meaningful holiday season is about communication. “It’s important to talk about things, talk about your traditions, and share why you believe what you do. I wouldn’t try to have my kids believe both and then have them choose when they grow up. You have to know where you stand and go from there.” And it is a system that has worked for this family. “It is important to have family support,” Laura jokes. “My husband hasn’t officially converted, but sometimes he goes to the temple more than we do!”
Raising an Interfaith Family
“Celebrating Christmas with a Christian parent will not undermine a child’s Jewish identity and celebrating Hanukkah with a Jewish parent will not change a child’s Christian faith if the child is truly being raised with a religious affiliation that confirms the child’s place in the community and speaks to his or her relationship with God,” explains Rabbi Vered L. Harris of Temple B’Nai Israel in Oklahoma City.
When parents of different religions come together to start a family, Rabbi Harris recommends that the parents decide in which faith to raise the children. “Religion gives children a foundation for building a lifelong relationship with God and developing their personal character. It is much bigger than a Christmas tree or a Hanukkah menorah; religion serves as the basis for a person’s ethical and moral development. This occurs all year long.”
Even after choosing which faith in which to raise children, families still often participate in the traditions of both religions during the holidays. “I recommend the parents do not ‘dumb down’ either religion,” Harris suggests. “Some keep their children away from other observances until they are sure the child understands. Other families choose to have symbols for both religions in their home. However it is done, the theology, history and core beliefs of the holidays should be explained in age-appropriate terms.”
Tips for Blending Holiday Traditions
Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M, LCSW, a family therapist of 37 years and author of Take Out your Nose Ring, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s, believes that parents who share the holiday traditions of both religions with their children can give them a solid identity based on the family values and traditions.
“Interfaith families must discover ways of celebrating the holiday season which are both comfortable and rewarding for them,” explains Kendrick. “How you celebrate your holiday rituals and traditions should flow naturally from how you are raising your children. The importance and practice of your faith should determine the nature of your holiday celebrations.”
Follow these tips to help create harmonious holidays:
- Plan ahead. Discuss what holiday traditions will be a priority for your family. If you think that new holiday traditions might disappoint extended family members, let them know in advance and calmly ask for support. “The challenge is to create holiday celebrations that respect and honor all religious values and traditions,” Kendrick says. “It’s not an easy task, and there’s no absolutely ‘right’ way to do it.”
- Don’t homogenize. Resist the urge to combine holidays into one celebration. Commemorate and celebrate each holiday separately, explaining the variations of your traditions and the beliefs behind them.
- Honor both sides. Even if your children are being raised in one religion, they should learn about the faith and holiday traditions of both parents. “Give your children the gifts of your holiday rituals and traditions,” he adds. “Let them hear about, if not experience, them.”
- Share the deeper meaning. Rather than just observe holiday traditions out of habit, be sure your family understands the purpose and meanings of activities, celebrations and symbols, and why they are part of holiday rituals. “Our children need to understand the purpose and core messages of the holidays and how they fit into our religious traditions,” Harris explains. “This means discussing the meaning and history of the tree, the wreath, the menorah and the dreidel.”
- Seek secular sources of joy. As a family, volunteer together, practice random acts of kindness or lend a hand to those in need during the holidays. (Editor’s note: Find family-friendly volunteer opportunities at www.metrofamilymagazine.com/volunteering-opportunities)
- Join forces. Consider celebrating the holidays with other interfaith families. This may help your children to feel less isolated in their experience and provide you with ideas for new ways to celebrate together.
Celebrate Your Diversity
“Above all, I recommend a daily practice that conveys to children who they are, the religious belief from which they can pull strength and meaning, and how to live in the world true to their religious convictions,” Rabbi Harris concludes. “Then when the winter holidays come around there is no ‘December dilemma’—there is just the holiday that is part of their religious observance, and the holiday that is part of their other parent’s religious observance, and the child knows the difference.”
Brooke Barnett is the Assistant Editor and Online Content Manager at MetroFamily Magazine.