Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

How to Have a Happy Interfaith Holiday

Mutual respect is key to bringing up an interfaith family.

Luann*, like several of my clients, has been worried about the holidays. Not only does she have to balance three sets of parents (her husband's are divorced and remarried), but she also has to find a way to manage the fact that her family is Hindu, her husband's is Jewish, and her children want a Christmas tree. Although it is frequently a struggle, I actually love hearing the creative ways that my clients in interfaith relationships have found to celebrate the holidays. I only wish that in this time of world conflict, some of our leaders could hear what these folks are doing to solve personal religious strife.

While some focus on one holiday, others integrate everything they can find - Hanukah candles, songs and traditional foods, Christmas eve Mass, Santa and stockings, trees with lights, and special foods, and Kwanzaa with special candles, food (hmm...there seems to be a theme here...) and other beautiful, fun or otherwise meaningful rituals.

This process also has personal meaning for me. Many years ago, when my then-boyfriend and I began searching for a way to formally cement our relationship, interfaith relationships were even more frowned on than they are today. We found one book that offered some guidance, but basically, we were on our own. Fortunately, we were blessed with wonderful mentors who helped us recognize that the relationship would form our religious practices, and not vice versa. And over time we discovered that they were right. I went to church with my husband on Easter and Christmas, although not on Sundays. When I eventually began looking for a Jewish congregation to join, he went with me to more Friday night services than I had been to in my entire life.

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Despite the dire warnings, we had little difficulty finding an interfaith path that worked for our family. I described part of that path, the search for a way to bring up our child, in an article on the Interfaith Family website Fortunately for anyone who is trying to bring up a child in an interfaith family today, there are far more possibilities for guidance, counseling and advice than there were when we were starting out. But of course there are also still plenty of people who feel that it is a mistake to try to make an interfaith union. The idea of mixing religious beliefs is still complex and often complicated, although far more common than it was when my husband and I married. But whether in the world at large or your small family unit, I believe there are a few ideas that can make interfaith living not only possible, but deeply enriching.

Today there are lots of books, websites and articles offering advice for anyone in this position. There are interfaith couples groups; and even parents of interfaith couples groups! One site that I have found useful over the years is InterfaithFamily. "The Calling," a documentary airing on public television addresses another side of this coin, the calling to be a religious leader in several different belief groups. The Huffington Post review of this program captures some of the interpersonal conflicts that go along religious choices today. Two of the most difficult, but crucial issues for anyone dealing with this situation are 1) how to manage our parents and in-laws' expectations; and 2) how to help our children manage their own experiences (not always in that order). For instance, it can be extremely difficult for a young couple just starting out in a relationship to know how deal with the disapproval of one or both sets of parents on the interfaith question. But that does not mean it is impossible to manage. Most important, I think, is to maintain communication, no matter how hard it feels to get through.

I was very lucky. Both my husband's and my family embraced our joint decisions. But when that doesn't happen, it can be extremely painful for everyone. One thing that can help is to remember that your parents are trying to do what they believe is right. Their disapproval may not be personal, that is, not about who you are, but simply about what they believe will make your life most comfortable. Or it may simply be their own personal belief system, but not their feelings about you or your partner as individuals.Some of the list below might help you negotiate with them as well as with your partner!

That brings us to the question of your kids. How do they integrate this experience? How do they establish their own religious identity? And how do you and your partner deal with feeling that if your child rejects your beliefs, they are rejecting you (this can also help you empathize with your parents' concerns - at least a little, right?) It does help, of course, if they are with other youngsters in similar situations. My son and his friends in public school were from so many mixed backgrounds that those who had one Jewish and one Christian parent coined the term "JuCa" for themselves.

Rebelling against parental beliefs is often part of the normal and healthy separation process. So as interfaith parents we - almost by definition - need to make room for our offspring to try on a variety of different religious possibilities. My husband and I found that it helped to emphasize that many faiths have similar moral positions. For example, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" was very important in our family, and we discussed the idea that it exists as a belief or credo in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism (when our son began looking into that as a religious possibility)and even atheism.

And then of course there's the practical question of what to do about presents? While my husband and I certainly spoiled our son in many ways, we weren't believers in an over-abundance of gifts (fortunately, he was also not a particularly demanding soul). But we both loved the tradition of Santa and stockings and Christmas morning unwrapping presents from under the tree; so we continued that ritual in our family. We lit candles and sang songs on Hanukah, but did not exchange gifts. And no one complained.

Here are a few ideas that we have found helpful over the years. I would love to hear your personal solutions to this problem as well. What has worked for you? What hasn't? Why do you think something has or hasn't worked?
1. Respect your differences. (My colleague on the PT website, Thomas Plante, makes some very important points on this subject). Remember, you got involved in this relationship for a reason. See if you can find anything in your partner's beliefs that reflect some of the things you most value about him or her. Put those thoughts into words in a conversation, or even in a card that you give him or her, signed with love!

2. Keep your eye on similarities, which often hide behind apparent differences. I was only slightly joking when I commented on the theme of lights and traditional foods and songs that runs through all of the holidays that appear around the time of the winter solstice. I believe this is true of many of our cultural and religious celebrations. They are human celebrations as much as religious. Food and candles aside, they are also about our attempts to find a way to live a caring and meaningful life - and this is a tradition and focus in every religion.

3. Create family rituals. They do not have to be complicated or even religious. I am the world's worst baker, so baking cookies "out of scratch," as my son used to call it, was never going to be a holiday tradition in our house. But I love candles, so lighting Hanukah, Christmas and Kwansa candles (our son, growing up in the New York City public school system, introduced this latter into our practice) was an easy and joyful family tradition to begin and continue. Dressing up and going to sing Christmas Carols at a Christmas Eve service was another; and so was making potato latkes and vegetarian tacos (not at the same time) sometime during the holiday season!

4. Experiment, mix, and find what works for you. My husband likes to combine Christmas carols and Hanukah music on the cd player, so we can end up listening to "Little Drummer Boy" right after "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel." We like it, but you might not. Find what works for your family.

5. Know that tensions will rise and work on managing them together. Another colleague on the PT website, Renee Garfinkel, has several useful comments about arguing that you might want to look at.

6. And remember you got together despite - or maybe even because of - your differences. Remind yourself of what you loved about one another to begin with. And know that differences are an important part of what makes any relationship work!

Looking forward to hearing what has helped you negotiate interfaith tensions!! I wish you a happy and peaceful holiday season, whatever you may be celebrating!

 

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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