Traditionally, for Christian-Jewish families – or at least in writing about them – the month of December is referred to as a “dilemma.” This time of year brings discussion about whether to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or both, which often centers on one key question: “To tree, or not to tree?”
Of course, interfaith families negotiate these kinds of decisions all year round: Should we observe your traditions, my traditions, both, or neither? On some level, these are questions that any family – blood or chosen – has to navigate, even when they share the same religion. But December throws them into high relief for interfaith families, especially the decision of whether to put up a Christmas tree.
In my work on American religion, particularly Judaism, I have spent nearly a decade researching interfaith families – a topic which interests me, in part, because of my own experience in interfaith families.
Many people try to make decisions about how to observe holidays by drawing lines around what traditions are “religious” vs. “cultural.” But in my interviews, many families say that it is ultimately not what they choose to celebrate, but how they talk about it, that makes everyone feel included.
More multifaith families
What “interfaith marriage” means varies in different historical eras. At moments in American history, a marriage between a Methodist and a Presbyterian would count, although both traditions are Protestant Christian. Many religious groups have had objections to interfaith marriage, often couched in worry that growing up in a multifaith home would be confusing or damaging for children.
After the peak of Jewish immigration in the early 20th century, the rate of interfaith marriage was low for the first few decades, but rose as Jewish communities became more assimilated and accepted as “American”. By the 1990s, an estimated 50% of American Jews married non-Jews, most of whom were Christian, had been raised in Christian households, or were from secular families who celebrated Christian holidays. The Jewish community often assumed people who “married out” were “lost” to Judaism.
When Americans Jews started to marry non-Jews in increasingly large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a huge controversy over whether rabbis should perform their marriages. Initially, some rabbis in the Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements – modern Judaism’s more liberal branches – decided that they would be willing to, as long as those couples agreed to keep a Jewish home. That said, this was not an era of high Jewish observance, so having a Jewish home was often less about Jewish practices like lighting candles for Shabbat and more about keeping Christian elements like holidays out of the home – at least until children were old enough to go to Hebrew school.
Many people argued that a home should not combine religions. As a small minority, Jewish Americans worried that interfaith marriage would mean a smaller Jewish community. And for some Jews, having elements of Christianity in the home could be painful, given its history of often oppressing Judaism, and because holidays like Christmas increased their own sense of being cultural outsiders. You might have people of multiple religions in that home, they argued, but a Jewish home could not include Christian holidays – and Christmas, representing the birth of the Christian savior, seemed like the ultimate marker of Christianity.
‘Culture’ vs. ‘religion’
In this view, Christmas was a religious holiday and the tree was the symbol of a religious holiday, despite how celebrations like decorating, baking cookies and hanging stockings for Santa can be stripped of Christian theological meaning for many people – including my own Hindu relatives. At the same time, however, many religious leaders and advice manuals argued that a Christmas tree was a cultural symbol, not a religious one, and therefore it shouldn’t matter to a Christian spouse whether or not the family put up a tree.
However, “religion” and “culture” are complicated, debated categories that do not mean the same thing to everyone. In the U.S., the most common definition of religion is shaped by Christianity – and often, specifically, a form of Protestant Christianity that emphasizes beliefs over almost everything else. In this understanding, religion is mostly about what someone holds in their heart, not outward signs of that faith – particularly activities that aren’t rooted in theology, like church suppers, Easter eggs or Santa.
But “belief” can’t capture a whole tradition, even Protestant ones, never mind other traditions like Judaism. This understanding of “religion” as something separate from “culture” also assumes that somehow “religion” is more important to people.
It does not help someone understand why a Christmas tree might feel emotionally central to a cultural Christian who does not have faith, or feel terribly problematic to a Jew even if they understand that the tree is not part of theology.
Listening with care
Ultimately, perhaps, it is not actually important to use these lines between religion and culture, especially since they are much more complicated than they might appear at first glance.
In my ethnographic research, the families that had the happiest holidays were the families that listened well to each other and felt that everyone’s voices were heard.
For instance, one couple took the standard advice to forgo the tree, but decorated with evergreens. This solution did not really satisfy the wife, who had grown up Christian, and annoyed her Jewish husband. In the end, no one was happy.
By contrast, another couple discussed what mattered most to them. The Jewish husband explained that he felt an “allergy” to both Jesus and the Christmas tree. His Christian wife thought about it and came to the conclusion that Jesus was central to her holiday, but a tree was not. Therefore, they had a nativity scene but went without a tree – in other words, they went with the clearly religious symbol. She appreciated his willingness to let her have Christ in their home; he appreciated that she gave up the tree.
One Jewish woman said that her husband’s decorations – stockings and a tree – can make her feel like it is “all Christmas, all the time,” especially when Hanukkah falls early and celebrations are over long before Christmas. But she appreciates that he agreed to raise their child as a Jew, to have their primary religious community be Jewish, and to attend services with her for the High Holidays and special events. It is hard for her to have a tree in their home, but she recognizes that, while her main compromise comes in December, he has altered his life year-round.
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Other families settled joyfully into doing both, building family traditions out of both heritages. Still other families agreed to give up Christmas at home in favor of fun family vacations, or long visits with Christmas-celebrating relatives.
What made a difference? For these families, my research suggested that it was not what they decided, but how they decided: by listening to each other in a spirit of collaboration and generosity.
These compromises may seem especially challenging in a shared domestic space, which people want to feel like “home.” But the basic principle holds true in other environments, as well: listening to loved ones, sharing what matters to us, honoring as much of that as possible – and maybe learning to love what our loved ones love.
Samira Mehta receives funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.
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