For interfaith families, the holiday season
brings many reasons to celebrate
By Cara McDonough / Photography by Tony Bacewicz
The words that come to mind when we think of the holidays speak to the joy of the season – and the chaos, too. It’s a celebratory, abundant, frantic, merry and, sometimes, stressful time of year.
For people who are religious, the holidays may also serve as a reminder to more deeply reconnect with their faith; there are special services to attend and traditions to honor.
No matter how you mark this time of year, it’s safe to say that it’s a busy time for most. And for interfaith couples, where each individual comes from a different religious background, the holidays can be a little more complicated as they navigate unfamiliar terrain and make sure all those traditions are equally represented. But the experience often makes this an especially meaningful season for those couples and their families.
A joyful kind of busy
Alli and Adam Schaefer have been married 12 years and have three children aged 7, 4 and 2. He’s Jewish, she’s Christian – a Congregationalist – and they’re raising their children Jewish. However, the Woodbridge couple agreed on something early on when it came to the winter holidays: celebrating both was important.
They revel in Christmas traditions, including presents under the tree and a visit from Santa, and light the menorah candles for each night of Hanukkah. They put a big emphasis on celebrating with family and attend a yearly lessons and carols service with her family at a church in Boston.
“We have these big extended families, so it gets incredibly busy, and every year we think we are going to streamline it and never do,” Alli says. “It’s hard to simplify when you celebrate both. Neither of us is willing to give up our portion of the season. We both want to pass on these things to our kids.”
For this family, though, it’s a joyful kind of busy, and their shared faiths have provided ample opportunities to grow more accepting, open and curious – in faith and beyond.
“I think when you’re married outside of your faith, you have to be open to experiencing other traditions, and that makes you open to other people’s traditions in general,” Alli says.
While they do employ some tactics to quell the general overabundance (Hanukkah gifts are often small, or might be “experiences” rather than tangible presents) their family focuses more on the benefits of combined faiths than the complexities.
“I think for a lot of people, like our children, it gives them a very interesting and full experience,” says Alli. “They are equally excited about all these traditions. To them, it’s just normal.”
They focus on the “giving” aspect of the holidays, including to charity, and on the fun of gathering with loved ones.
There are some practical benefits to their situation, too. For one thing, they don’t have to decide whose extended family they’re spending Christmas with every year, a decision that other couples might have to make. Plus, they bonded with other family members in similar situations when deciding how to manage the busy season.
“We’re so lucky because in both of our families there were already interfaith couples,” says Alli, referencing aunts and uncles in the same situation. “We had both grown up with some of the holidays that aren’t part of our faith tradition. We’ve benefited from that because we’re not trailblazing in our family and have looked at those couples as role models.”
Bringing family together
For Steph and Brian Slattery, who live in Hamden, having understanding family members plays a big part in their holiday season as well. And being understanding to other family members is a role they both take seriously.
Steph was raised Jewish and still practices, while Brian was raised Catholic and hasn’t been to church in decades, although the Catholic faith is incredibly important to his parents.
They’re raising their 13-year-old son Jewish, because they agreed that raising him with a faith tradition was important. As far as the holidays are concerned, they celebrate Hanukkah at home, as well as host a Christmas gathering for extended family most years, complete with a Christmas tree.
For the Slatterys, the holidays aren’t about perfection or getting the details just right, but instead about cultivating an appreciation of tradition – and throwing in a few new traditions of their own.
Let’s take that Christmas tree, for instance. “We don’t own any ornaments,” says Steph. “So we grab stuff around the house and put it on the tree.” The makeshift decorations often included crocheted items that she’s crafted.
Like the Schaefers, they offer small gifts for Hanukkah, making the season a little easier to manage, especially when it and Christmas are close together on the calendar. They don’t do gifts from mom and dad under the Christmas tree, but their son gets plenty from relatives who celebrate.
The situation has given each member of the family opportunities dive deeper, too, learning more about the two faiths practiced in their immediate and extended families. Brian says he’s enjoyed getting to know more about Judaism, including during Hanukkah, and his parents invite their grandson to church at Christmas every year, although they never push the issue; his parents leave the decision of whether or not to go up to him.
“I love any holiday that has to do with food and family together,” Steph says. Her husband wholeheartedly agrees, and they both point out that adopting two sets of traditions has never been a burden. Rather, it’s a reason to bring extra meaning to the season.
Brian says that although he’s “far away” from Catholicism from a spiritual standpoint, “it’s easy for me to see that celebrating the holiday in the proper style is really important to the people we’re inviting over, and therefore it’s important to me.”
He finds a lot that’s culturally similar in the two faiths, especially where the holidays are concerned: “It’s about food and getting together, and a shared sense of tradition and heritage that you identify with.”
Steph points out that, for her, embracing Christmas isn’t about “not being Jewish, it’s about being a good host.”
Plus, she has added reason to embrace a day that’s – simply put – a big deal in this country. “What I love is that it’s become a day that’s not religiously meaningful to me, but that I really look forward to,” she says. (She also points out a logistical benefit: as a pediatrician, it’s a day that she can freely offer to be “on call” in her practice, a gesture other Jewish doctors there happily offer as well).
Their son’s situation is, simply put, “awesome,” she says. “He gets to celebrate everything.”
Expanding their horizons
Michelle and Jonathan Helitzer, a couple from Simsbury, are Catholic and Jewish, respectively. They too celebrate the Christian and Jewish holidays together as a family, although in their case, family religion involves being members at a local Catholic Church, St. Catherine of Siena.
For their family, “most Jewish holidays are home-based rather than synagogue-centric,” says Michelle about the way the couple and their children adapt to a busy spiritual life, adding that Christmas and Easter “take center stage” when it comes to the Christian holidays.
Keeping with the theme of most interfaith couples, it seems, they, too, emphasize the cultural and food-centric parts of the season, including latkes at Hanukkah and a traditional Passover meal.
“We love being exposed to one another’s heritages and beliefs,” says Michelle. “It’s educational, affirming and enjoyable.”
Learning and sharing traditions
Nagu Kent is Hindu and her husband, Philip, is Jewish. For this Hamden-based couple, the winter holidays are a fairly relaxed affair. They celebrate Hanukkah at home and, when they visit her family in New York, do take time to celebrate a low-key Christmas, enjoying time with loved ones and the chance to give a few gifts, despite the fact that it’s not a holiday they are attached to through their faiths.
She says they concentrate on the Jewish and Hindu high holidays – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, which is celebrated each autumn – and that their three sons have been or will be bar mitzvahed. But in general, when it comes to religion, “we just kind of roll with it,” she says.
They’re in good company: Nagu has two older brothers, one who is married to a Catholic, and one who is married to an Indian woman. So learning and sharing new traditions is natural in this family.
As for the benefits of being an interfaith couple? She laughs, and says her children don’t seem particularly “spiritual,” even with so many faith-based traditions in their lives. They still wish they could get out of attending religious services on the holidays, like most kids.
But learning about one another’s faith is certainly interesting, she says, and she’s happy to live in a community where there are many interfaith couples, so it feels normal for her to attend temple with her husband. “People are very embracing,” she says.
She models that in her own family, too.
“It doesn’t matter what God you pray to,” she tells her children. “God is just there to teach you good things, to give you something to hope for.”
Father Michael Whyte, the pastor at St. Catherine of Siena in West Simsbury, says he has interacted with many new and established couples that come from two different faiths. He emphasizes how important it can be to embrace one another’s traditions not only at the holidays, but all throughout the year.
Having children can make this especially important, he says. When parents provide a “legacy of faith” – even when it’s two different faiths – it allows children to choose how they’d like to embrace spirituality in their own lives someday.
This means accepting a dual responsibility, Whyte says: being a proud and passionate representative of your individual faith, while embracing your partner’s fully.
“I’m not saying that you have to accept the beliefs of the other faith, but accept the traditions,” Whyte says.
Because whether it’s family gatherings, putting up a Christmas tree or menorah, or attending church, temple or a mosque, when it comes to religion the truth is, “there are far more similarities than there are differences,” he says. “We all look to a creator. We look to someone who is loving.”
He feels, “We need to focus on our common denominators and move forward from that. We spend so much time on the differences of everything, from the rituals to the theology of our faith, that we forget to see the mortar that puts it all together.”
Celebrating what we all have in common is particularly meaningful during the holidays, he says. It’s a time of year that is – yes – busy and buoyant, but also a period when people tend to look inward, becoming more charitable, generous, empathetic to those around them, and dialed in to what’s most important: “It’s when people try to be really focused on what really matters.”