Interfaith families deal with 'December dilemma'

Micah Sachs

It has become a cliché to identify the confluence between Hanukkah and Christmas in interfaith families as a “December dilemma.”

Indeed, for many families, celebrating two holidays produces fewer problems, not more. It certainly makes the decision on where to spend Christmas a lot easier. But even if there’s no capital-D dilemma, there still may be some lowercase-p pitfalls you want to avoid.   

Before you can help your children navigate the potential conflicts between Hanukkah and Christmas, you need to determine how you feel about the holidays.

If you are Jewish, do you have issues with Christmas trees? Why? Are you afraid they send the wrong message to your children, or do you simply have an ingrained cultural resistance to them? If you are Christian, do you go to church on Christmas because of your beliefs or because it’s what your family has always done? You need to clarify how you feel before you can worry about how your child feels.

Prior to making this determination, you should have already decided in what faith you will be raising your children. Research has shown that children raised with two religious traditions often end up adopting neither religion or identifying with the more socially prevalent tradition. If you want your child to grow up with a strong sense of faith, or a strong religious identity, you should choose one religion for your child. The earlier you can make the decision, the better.

But just because you’ve chosen one religious tradition for your children doesn’t mean you have to abandon Hanukkah or Christmas. You can celebrate holidays outside of the religious tradition you’re raising your child in by being clear about what’s religious and what’s not.

One good strategy is to explain celebrating the holiday outside the religion you choose for your family as being like a friend’s birthday. You can join in the fun and celebrate, but it’s not your special day. You’re celebrating it because it’s important to someone you care about. This is a particularly effective approach if you celebrate Hanukkah at home and Christmas at Grandma’s -- or vice versa.

Both holidays can comfortably co-exist in your home. If you value the holidays equally, give them equal time. That doesn’t mean having a Hanukkah bush next to your Christmas tree, but it does mean gathering the whole family for the menorah-lighting much as you gather the whole family together to open presents on Christmas morning.

The key to making a dual-holiday household work is adaptation. As long as your family models appropriate behavior and worship, you don’t have to go by the book on everything. Just because your parents went to midnight Mass or lit candles at sundown all eight days of Hanukkah doesn’t mean that you have to.

Remember, December is only one month of the year. Your main concern should be how family will live religiously throughout the entire year. If you and your partner agree on how you’re raising your children the rest of the year, then giving in on one holiday is less significant.

Micah Sachs is managing editor of InterfaithFamily.com, a Jewish nonprofit that provides resources and services for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life.