Holiday Guidelines for Interfaith Parents

Interfaith families struggle to be true to the religions of both parents during the winter holiday season.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook (Jewish Lights Publishing).

It's difficult to go about "business as usual" during the December holiday season. While the whole country appears to be celebrating, non-Christians often feel either trapped and marginalized if they don't join the merriment, or they may feel disingenuous and even guilty if they choose to participate in Christmas observances.hanukkah quiz

Issues Faced by Interfaith Couples

For interfaith couples in which one partner is Jewish and the other identifies as Christian, the holidays of Hanukkah and Christmas pose opportunities and challenges. When children are not involved, couples frequently share their respective traditions and try out ways to observe the holidays together.

Many holiday practices can be shared without violating either partner's religious integrity. Prior to having children, the vast majority of interfaith couples I've known over the years tell me that the December holidays are not especially problematic and can even be enjoyable times to share each other's traditions.

When children are involved, however, the December holidays are more likely to be stressful. Couples often struggle over which holiday to observe or how the respective holidays will be celebrated. Even when the children are being raised as either clearly Jewish or Christian, questions may arise about celebrating the "other" holiday. Parents often ask if they will confuse their children.

interfaith christmasThis issue surfaces most commonly when the children are being raised as Jews. Christmas observance can be perceived as a threat to their children's Jewish identity and parents worry that others will question their commitment.

Parents' ambivalence or difficulty in making decisions about children's religious identity can lead to struggles between parents who try to attract children toward either religious tradition through holiday observances.  Clearly, "letting the children decide" poses a real risk when Christmas and Hanukkah become competitions in which the number of presents is what matters most.

Some parents use holiday observances as a substitute for choosing a religious affiliation or education for the children. If parents have not decided on their children's religious upbringing, Christmas or Hanukkah observance can send signals to others that the children are being raised as either Christians or Jews--whether or not that is the case.

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Dr. June A Horowitz

Dr. June Andrews Horowitz is an Associate Professor in the Psychiatric-Mental Health Department, School of Nursing, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass.