I know, I know: December rolls around and here it is, another article on interfaith families and the "December Dilemma." Yet as familiar as the topic might feel to some of us, I believe the December holidays do pose particular challenges for some families. Although I'm not a fan of the "dilemma" moniker, since it implies that there are no good options for balancing the holidays, it is important to recognize that for interfaith families, this time of year usually does involve some juggling in order to find a balance that's right for them.
For some families, the stress point is the celebration: how do we observe both holidays without making December one big gift and party bonanza for the kids? For others it is meaning: if we are raising our children with a Jewish identity, how do we explain the meaning of Christmas so it is more than just a day to get presents? For some families, the challenge is meeting the needs of the extended family: if Grandma is too old to do the Christmas tree and dinner in her home, can we show our love for her by having the tree and/or dinner in our house and still keep it a Jewish home? Parents, too, can have their own torn feelings: how can I celebrate my partner's unfamiliar rituals without feeling sadness about losing something of my own traditions?
The most important thing to remember is that there is no one RIGHT way to balance Christmas and Chanukah. Each family - parents, children, extended family - is different. Just as the stress points for juggling two holidays can vary from interfaith family to interfaith family, the ways families find to manage the challenges usually differ, depending on circumstances and the needs and expectations of the individual family members involved. For some families, figuring things out comes easily, for others it takes time and some trial and error. But most families find a balance that works for them well before the kids get to elementary school.
So how can a new family begin finding that balance? Last year a group of Habonim interfaith families gathered to discuss the holidays, and as different as each family's experiences and choices were, there were some pointers that everyone agreed would help. First, parents need to communicate with one another, making sure that each partner's feelings and expectations are heard and discussed. Being sure that you are on the same page is an essential step to avoiding misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and resentment. Second, parents need to stay focused on their own values while also remembering to appreciate the meaning of holiday rituals for their partners and their families. This dual focus and appreciation can help parents work together to find a balance based on what matters most for their family. Truly, figuring out what works best for your family may take thought and creativity, but it does not have to be a dilemma!
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Amy Small, LICSW, is the new Kesher social worker at the synagogue. Kesher is the congregational outreach program of Jewish Family Service of Rhode Island, funded by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, and currently active at Congregation Agudas Achim, Temple Torat Yisrael, Temple Am David, Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Beth Sholom. Amy may be reached at email@example.com or