’Tis the season to be jolly. And light candles. And celebrate time spent with family and friends. And bake and eat delicious treats. And give and receive gifts. These traditions may be some of the traditional trappings of Christmas, but they’re important facets of Hanukkah, too.
With more and more Americans entering interfaith marriages (27 percent, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life), an increasing number of households are devising ways to celebrate multiple religious traditions at once. For eleven months of the year, living in an interfaith household can feel much like living in any other household—albeit one with significantly more holidays—but in the month of December, with Christmas and Hanukkah in close proximity to each other, honoring the spirit of a partner’s religion can be tricky for Christians and Jews. Instead of just trimming the tree with blue and silver tinsel, consider exploring these real ways for couples to celebrate and respect each other’s religious heritage.
Discuss What You’re Comfortable with in Advance
Even when your intentions are good, surprising your spouse or partner with outward displays of religiosity can sometimes be off-putting. Before undertaking any plans or preparations, discuss what you’re both comfortable with and delineate boundaries. A Jewish person might not feel comfortable with a Christmas tree but doesn’t mind other seasonal decorations. A Christian may enjoy lighting candles on the menorah but would prefer to skip the recitation of Torah passages. Reaching a compromise in advance about how you’ll celebrate the holiday season can prevent hurt feelings or misunderstandings later. Keep alive the traditions that are most meaningful to you, be they solemn Seders or midnight Mass, but be willing to compromise on other details. Whether you agree to enjoy modest observances of both holidays all month long or decide to celebrate each fully during the week of the actual celebration only, knowing in advance how you’ll approach these festivities will make things easier and will foster the creation of new traditions that are special to you.
Keep the Holidays in Perspective
Hanukkah is not just the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, nor is it the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar. (Of course, don’t forget that Christmas isn’t the most significant Christian holiday, either.) Your spiritual life doesn’t end on December 26, so make an effort to understand the holidays that don’t get as much attention, and enjoy celebrations in both faiths throughout the rest of the year. Incorporating elements of both religions in December is easier when you immerse yourselves in both faiths all year long.
Focus On the Similarities, Not Just the Differences
Especially if you have children, emphasize that Judaism and Christianity are far more alike than they are different. Both preach respect, tolerance, and love for one another. Christians and Jews worship the same god and believe in the same heaven; they’re just taking different routes to get there.
Embrace Humor in Moderation
Many interfaith couples and families joyously proclaim their celebration of “Chrismukkah,” a new, pop culture–influenced melding of the holidays. Many greeting-card companies even offer fun and modern card lines for hip interfaith families. It can be fun to send these out to friends and acquaintances, but remember that in previous generations, religious intermarriage was considered taboo. Parents and grandparents are sometimes less than enthusiastic when a child marries out of the family’s religion, so think carefully before sharing irreverent displays of mixed faith—which can appear to trivialize both traditions—with older or more conservative relatives.
Keep the in-Laws Happy
The reason so many older people are suspicious of religious intermarriage is that they fear their sacred traditions will die out because later generations aren’t being raised in the “correct” faith. Whether or not you have kids, remember to accommodate both sets of parents’ wishes as much as you can. If one half of the family celebrates Christmas, make sure to celebrate Hanukkah with the other half. Take traditions from each partner’s childhood and keep them alive in your daily lives. If you do have children, allow their grandparents or other relatives to spend time with them and explain the significance of the holidays. (After all, even if kids are brought up in one religion, learning about other faiths won’t harm them.) If elders know that their faith and traditions are being passed down to future generations, they are less likely to feel anxious.
Cool It with the Consumerism
There’s no easy way to say this, but in a household in which two religious holidays are to be celebrated fairly and equally, it’s important to tone down the Christmas madness. No one wants to continue the “War on Christmas” or prevent anyone else from displaying a crèche, but it’s an unavoidable fact that, culturally, Christmas dominates every other holiday in December. In order to celebrate both holidays equally and fairly, keep the blatant consumerism and pop culture to a minimum. Let go of the elaborate light displays, multiple visits to Santa, screaming for toys, over-the-top decorations, and unceasing play of “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” Celebrate the real Christmas—the one where families get together to give meaningful gifts and mark the birth of Jesus, not the one where children tear maniacally through giant piles of booty and everyone is stressed out and broke for weeks afterward.
Interfaith families and households aren’t just a challenge in December—millions of Americans in mixed relationships struggle to mesh Christianity and Islam, Judaism and Hinduism, Buddhism and atheism, all year long. But the traditional holiday scene, with outward displays of religious devotion on every commercial, radio jingle, department store rack, and street corner, makes these compromises even harder. Whether you quietly acknowledge both faiths or proudly claim your devotion to Chrismukkah, the important thing is to both create new traditions and preserve the old. And if all else fails, just go snorkeling in the Bahamas until after New Year’s.