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Menorahs, Mistletoe, and the Meaning of Holidays

Find out how families cope with interfaith marriages and holiday celebrations.
By: Katy Abel

Menorahs, Mistletoe, and the Meaning of Holidays

Kids Can Get Confused
The little boy was only four or five, out for a drive with his father. "What's that?" he asked, as they passed a synagogue.

"That's a temple, where Jewish people go to pray," the father explained. "People who are Christian go to church."

The boy thought for a minute, then said, "And people who are both don't go anywhere at all."

It's comments like these that give parents of young children pause, especially at this time of year. With the number of interfaith marriages at an all-time high, many families are searching for ways to hold on to cherished holiday traditions without confusing their children. As many couples discover, the "solution" is seldom a simple matter of choosing one faith or incorporating equal elements of both.

"It gets very confusing for kids to have Hanukkah for eight days and then have Santa come down the chimney," says Elizabeth Sullivan, the director of a family counseling and guidance center run by Catholic Charities. "The only way you can make it not confusing is to have a predominant religion."

Seek Meaning in What You Do
Sullivan advises couples to "seek meaning in what they do, rather than focus on being all Catholic or all Jewish." Leslie Litman, a regional education director for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, believes parents must make a "clean, clear choice" about their children's religious identity before they decorate a tree or light the menorah, otherwise the December holidays will be fraught with misunderstanding for all family members.

"I had a family who had made a decision to bring their son up as a Jew," Litman recalls, "but the mother was still going to church and the kid was going ballistic every time he went into the synagogue. He said it felt like a wall between himself and his mother. It turned out that the mother had never told her mother he was going to be raised Jewish. There was no real process that went on within the family, and the kid picked up on it."

Though family educators are virtually unanimous in their belief that children do best when one religion is predominant in a household, there are many variations on the interfaith theme.

Deck the Halls & Fry the Latkes
"I'm frying latkes. Me of all people!" laughs Margie D., mother of five- year-old Jacob.

Margie was raised in a large Italian family and has many treasured childhood memories of happy Christmas celebrations. Though she and her husband have chosen to raise Jacob as a Jew, the family will decorate a tree and open gifts on December 25th.

"It conjures up so much for me," Margie says. "The food, the family, the fun. It brings back memories of my father who died when I was 17."

To avoid confusing Jacob, Margie and her husband try to place more emphasis on Hanukkah each year, and plan to downplay Christmas gradually, though not entirely.

"It's definitely a work in progress," she continues. "I have to prepare myself for the questions he's going to ask about God and the church. Right now he thinks Jesus is a bad word!"

Being clear with Jacob is one of Margie's priorities, but sharing joyous holiday experiences with her child is also important to her.

"It's part of who I am," she explains. "I want him to know that."

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