It’s that time of year again — when we’re not sure of the culturally appropriate way to greet each other at the checkout line at the grocery store.
“Happy Holidays”? “Merry Chrismukkah”? “Happy Festivus”?
If it’s this complicated contemplating the proper greeting for a stranger, it’s imaginably a tad more difficult for interfaith families celebrating both Christmas and Chanukah, which both begin on Christmas Eve this year.
But Keren McGinity, founding director of the Love and Tradition Institute, which educates about Jewish intermarriage and gender, said she wouldn’t call it Chrismukkah (or any combination of the phrase).
“It’s important to celebrate our differences and to honor both traditions in their own right rather than blend them,” said McGinity, who also directs the Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement program at Hebrew College.
Every family is different when it comes to how they celebrate the holidays — there is no cookie-cutter correct way, she said.
Both holidays have landed on the same day before and it will surely happen again, so “any time holidays of different histories and theologies and meanings occur around the same time,” she added, “there’s going to be things to figure out regarding them.”
“One thing I always advise is to really communicate about everything as openly and honestly as one humanly can,” she continued, “and to share with one’s partner what’s truly important rather than to suppress it with the hope that it will not rock the boat. It’s really important — especially for young interfaith couples and partnerships — to be very upfront about how they feel about things and to be thoughtful about what compromises they’re willing to make.”
Those decisions may evolve over time and over their marriage, too, especially when children come along, so McGinity advised to find ways to celebrate your differences that are meaningful and respectful of one’s traditions, childhoods and religious outlooks.
Take Emily and Jose Sabalbaro, who just celebrated their first year of marriage.
Emily is Jewish and was always dead set on marrying a Jewish guy — until she met Jose, who is Catholic.
They’re not too religious on either side, but they do celebrate Christmas with Jose’s family.
Although they’ve been all across the spectrum from too few holiday decorations to overdoing it, they always end up with a smaller-than-usual Christmas tree.
“We always call it a Chanukah bush,” she joked.
But Emily said it’s all about taking baby steps.
“When we first started dating, it was instilled in me from my parents to never want to have a Christmas tree in my life, even though I always thought it was very cool,” she admitted. “So it took me a while to be like, ‘OK, we’re having a tree.’ And now we have one — and I put it up.”
She surprised Jose one morning with it, setting up the menorah right next to it.
She even preset all nine candles in the menorah to give him the full effect.
“Jose was like, ‘Why’d you put the candles in already? It’s not time for that,’” she laughed, which illustrates an important part of their relationship.
Emily found that explaining her religious customs to Jose strengthened her own beliefs.
“I learned a lot more about Judaism in the process and I realized for myself I was able to make educated decisions on what I wanted to do as an adult Jewish person, which I never really asked of myself before,” she said.
She suggested using those differences as a teaching or listening opportunity.
“Once I started to not see other things as a threat and really be open to it, I became more proud of my heritage,” she added. “We’ve always seen it as a multiplication, not a division, of our identities. We’re adding or multiplying what [interfaith] means, experiences in our lives, instead of taking something away.”
It took a little bit longer for Sara Schuh to get on board the Christmas train for her husband, Alex.
Sara, who was raised Reform and practiced Shabbat every Friday, married Alex 21 years ago. He grew up Presbyterian in Charleston, S.C., and went to church every Sunday.
They raise their 15-year-old twins, Aviva and Zachary, Jewish, and belong to a chavurah of about 40 families, many of whom are interfaith as well.
“I like to say that we do Christmas for Alex, and we do Chanukah for the three of us,” Sara said. “This is our third year having a tree in the house because I’ve kind of had a brick wall against that concept for, well, 17 years.”
What convinced Sara to take on the holiday was her own Jewish mother.
“From 12 on, my memory of Christmas is that my mom had to go be with my stepdad’s family, and I was generally alone,” Sara recalled. “So I would say I grew to be quite a Grinch and resented what Christmas meant, which is that I got left alone.”
But now, she admits that the tree looks lovely in their home.
They still continue to celebrate Shabbat each week — “I like my kids to stay home, but they are growing increasingly not happy with that rule,” Sara said — and the kids have never attended a Christian service.
But Alex, who is also on the InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia Leadership Council, said the kids celebrate Christmas with their friends — Jews, Muslims, Christians — through a gift exchange.
Before they got married, they decided they would raise their children Jewish.
“Alex didn’t feel that it conflicted with his values,” Sara said.
“I said, ‘That’s fine with me as long as I get to talk to my kids about the values of various religions,’” Alex added.
But it’s been harder in practice, Sara noted, like when grandparents would send the kids Chanukah presents in Christmas wrapping paper. It’s a learning experience.
This year, they’ll be traveling on Christmas Day to Sara’s mother’s house.
“When I grew up, we never would have done that kind of thing,” Alex said. “Wherever you were for Christmas Eve, that’s where you were going to be for the next couple days.”
But Sara is sure her mother will make a nice Christmas setting for Alex — and that she’ll pull out the deep fryer for Chanukah treats, too.
“Mom will probably do something funny like roast a turkey and have latkes,” Sara said. “She adores Alex. And she’s been a big part of helping me move forward and compromise more.”
They both agreed that the holiday season has become commercialized, but for them, it’s really all about family.
“There’s nothing bigger than that,” Alex said. “I had a big family growing up, so trying to get them all in the same house at the same time was not easy, but you could do it Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”
Alex will call his family from his mother-in-law’s house to wish them a Merry Christmas.
“I feel like, all right, there’s eight nights of this thing. We can put one of these nights on hold so Alex can have a full-on Christmas,” Sara said.
“But we’ll be lighting the candles,” Alex said.
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