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Christmas or Hanukkah? Interfaith families say both

  • Story Highlights
  • Some interfaith families celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah
  • Expert: Balance of consistency, tolerance key to making holidays work
  • Practice acceptance, voice expectations
  • Agree how to live religiously for the rest of the year
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By Heidi Sarna
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(LifeWire) -- Some call it the December dilemma: If you're a couple with different religious beliefs, what do you do with the holidays?


Jan and David Kaplan and their three children, from left, Celia, Lucy and Sam.

Michael and Becky Geller (he's Jewish, she's Protestant) decided to work together to celebrate the holidays that are important to each of them.

With their three young sons, the Gellers, of San Mateo, California, light the candles for Hanukkah and open gifts every night. They also put up a Christmas tree, sit down for traditional Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals, and exchange gifts with Becky's family and friends.

But the boys are being raised Jewish. "It's less confusing and grounds them in one, rather than trying to be both," Michael says.

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D., of Pacific Palisades, California, has counseled interfaith families for more than 30 years, and he says achieving that kind of balance between consistency and tolerance is key to making the holidays work.

"When parents cannot agree upon how or what to celebrate in their home or even the religious identity of their children, they are running the risk of communicating that same ambiguity and spiritual insecurity to their children as well," says Reuben, author of "There's an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate: Surviving Your Child's Interfaith Marriage."

For some families, equal immersion in the two religions works best.

David and Jan Kaplan, of Memphis, and their three preteen children are members of both a liberal Presbyterian congregation (Jan's primary faith) and a Reform Judaism temple (David's).

"My wife makes great matzo ball soup and I get the tree, set it up and hang all of the lights," says David. Together the family celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas, and the Kaplan kids consider themselves children of God.

Reuben says that approach helps children become accepting of others.

"When couples can learn to see holidays through the eyes of their partners and not only through the lens of their own upbringing," he says, "they can enrich their own lives and give their children the tools with which to experience different religious traditions in an open and nonjudgmental way."

But what if one partner isn't willing to compromise? Holidays can be especially challenging for the spouse whose beliefs have taken the back seat.

"The first year we were married, I took out my collection of Christmas ornaments and gave away any that had any religious overtones or even Christmas symbols," says Mel Patrell Furman of Evanston, Illinois, who was raised Roman Catholic and married a Jewish man.

"The rest, which included snowflakes and a bespectacled granny on skis, I strung up across our picture window. When my husband got home, he said I had to take them down, and I did."

A year later, Furman converted to Judaism.

Tips for happy holidays

First, agree upon the children's religious identity, Reuben says, and then work together to reinforce that identity, whatever it may be. "When parents are confused, kids are confused," he says.

  • Practice acceptance -- Experts say it's important to help children understand that they can enjoy holidays from different religions without betraying either parent or their religious upbringing. Michael Geller says his 7-year-old is aware that his parents have different religious beliefs and that Christmas is his mother's holiday. But above all, he says, he and his wife strive to focus on the similarities, not the differences.
  • Plan ahead for the holidays so each spouse has time to voice his or her expectations. From there, it's all about give and take, from negotiating how presents should be wrapped - in paper covered with Santa Clauses or menorahs? - to which songs should be sung and what food should be eaten.
  • • Put it in perspective -- If you agree about how you will live religiously for the rest of the year, not just for the month of December, then giving in on Christmas or Hanukkah is less significant, notes
  • At the end of the day, it's not just the religious rituals that matter. Jane Kaplan, of Evanston, Illinois, author of "Interfaith Families: Personal Stories of Jewish-Christian Intermarriage," says it's important to recognize how strongly holidays are associated with family, warmth and comfort. Happy memories from childhood are connected with happy family get-togethers, no matter what the occasion. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

    LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Heidi Sarna is a freelance writer based in Singapore and the co-author of "Frommer's Cruises & Ports of Call."

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