Today is the first day of Hanukkah, and we welcome a post from Samira K. Mehta, author of Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States, published by UNC Press.
The rate of interfaith marriage in the United States has risen so radically since the sixties that it is difficult to recall how taboo the practice once was. How is this development understood and regarded by Americans generally, and what does it tell us about the nation’s religious life? Drawing on ethnographic and historical sources, Samira K. Mehta provides a fascinating analysis of wives, husbands, children, and their extended families in interfaith homes; religious leaders; and the social and cultural milieu surrounding mixed marriages among Jews, Catholics, and Protestants.
Beyond Chrismukkah is available now in both print and ebook editions.
I was sitting in the kitchen with an interfaith couple. She is Mormon, he is Jewish. They were explaining their approach to their two traditions. Their children attend preschool at the JCC and Sunday School in the local Mormon ward. They have Shabbat dinner as a family, they go to synagogue as a family, and they go to Mormon worship services together. They also celebrate their holidays together. The Jewish spouse explained that he had an “allergy” to Christmas trees, particularly a tree in his own home. The tree was not of central importance to her—she was happy to avoid the commercialism of Christmas, and so they had no tree. She did, however, want the day to celebrate the promise in Christ’s birth, and so they had a crèche on their mantel throughout the holiday season.
Why could Jewish husband accept a nativity scene but found a Christmas tree to be an unacceptable Christian incursion into his home?
The Christmas tree, as it turns out, is a particularly fraught symbol for interfaith families—one that they have confronted year after year.
It is not just about the tree, of course. Objections to interfaith marriage follow two main arguments. Among Jews, a longstanding worry suspects that interfaith marriages will pull Jews, and their interfaith children, away from Judaism. The second, which applies beyond the Jews and Christians, objection stems from the belief that intermarriage undercuts marital happiness and leads to divorce.
The truth is more complicated–and more hopeful. Instead of conflict, negotiating the Christmas tree can create something that benefits all families: an occasion to discuss what they really value.
Though the Christmas tree dilemma features Christians and Jews, the issue increasingly touches Americans of all traditions. Since 2010, almost 40 percent of Americans have married across religious lines of some sort or another. These families have to decide how (or whether) to continue celebrating the holidays that each of them cherish, and which practices and traditions will have a place in their homes.
While liberal Christian communities have made comparatively few statements about interfaith marriage, the issue is especially troubling for American Jews, for whom interfaith marriage raises particular concerns. Given their relatively small numbers, and the long trend of declining affiliation with synagogues and Jewish community centers, leaders have worried that interfaith marriages diminished the Jewish community. In addition, some, though not all, American Jews find the Christmas season to be a reminder of their minority status in the United States and therefore do not want evidence of the holiday in their homes.
Many rabbis refuse to perform interfaith marriages. Others make the couple pledge to keep a Jewish home. Yet even this solution can be tricky.
The majority of American Jews do not follow all of Jewish law—they do not light candles on the Sabbath, for example, or keep kosher. When Reform rabbis, who are permitted by their movement to perform interfaith marriages, counsel Jewish-Christian couples, keeping a Jewish home cannot mean adherence to Jewish law. Instead, they insist on the principle of distinction itself: what made homes Jewish was the simple fact they were not Christian.
And here is where Christmas trees came in – or rather came out.
Unsurprisingly, rabbinical requirements did not settle the issue. Certainly, some Christian spouses happily axed their trees. Others acquiesced resentfully. Likewise, some Christians insisted on the tree, distressing or delighting their Jewish partners. Whatever they chose, some couples felt judged, either by their religious communities or extended families.
In the early 1980s, one Jewish man wrote to Alexander Schindler, president of the Reform movement, that they lived too far from his in-laws to spend Christmas with them, and it seemed cruel to make his wife give up a tree altogether. He went on to explain that every other Jewish household in the neighborhood had a tree, because they were assimilating! Why did his Christian wife have to go without?
These problems sometimes continue to trouble contemporary families. One Jewish woman, whose interfaith family attends to a Unitarian Universalist congregation, decorates her house for Christmas. She loves the decorations and is happy with her immediate family’s traditions, but she hates that her sister refuses to set foot in the house as long as the tree is up. For such families, December poses a dilemma.
Other families, however, have found their own arrangements, like the Mormon Jewish couple with the crèche. One family, firmly ensconced in a synagogue, has a tree in the house. The Jewish spouse does not like having the tree in her home, especially in years that Hanukkah comes early, when December feels like “all Christmas, all the time.”
At the same time, she appreciates that her husband gives her traditions primacy of place in their home, and she feels that it is only fair that he be able to keep a holiday that gives him joy. She is helped by the fact that her rabbi encouraged her to see the tree as part of “shalom beyt” or “peace in the home.” The rabbi’s acceptance of the family’s choices makes it easier for her to give her husband the gift of Christmas.
Another family avoids a tree, but decorates the home with evergreen boughs, so that the house smells like December to the Christian-raised husband. The remainder of their decorations are Hanukkah themed, and they deck the house almost as they would for Christmas. Any number of Unitarian Universalist families embrace both Christmas and Hanukkah, complete with the tree, the menorah and all the other trimmings, as do many families committed to maintaining both traditions in their homes. Still others have a tree, which they decorate with dreidels and a Star of David tree-topper.
Importantly, when families find a solution that works, without too much resentment, the children are not disoriented by the decisions, regardless of what they are. Some children self-identify with the tradition that their parents had selected for them, even if they grew up Jewish with a Christmas tree. Others want to maintain dual identities, to select a primary tradition, or find neither compelling. Regardless, they see conversations as acceptable in their families and do not equate “picking a religion” with “picking a parent.” Children suffer when the holiday season features tension about which choices to implement, but none of the choices cause inherent confusion.
For these interfaith families, as for so many families, the challenge of the holiday season is not really whether or not to have a tree, but how to discuss and consider each-others’ needs, in working out the household traditions Certainly, there are families for whom the holiday season highlights the complications of their two different religious traditions, though often those stresses echo other problem areas in the martial or familial dynamic. Arguments about religion do, after all, make children uncomfortable and confused about the two religions in their home. For couples who do find solutions, those arrangements work, not because they choose, or do not choose, to put up a tree. Rather, the solutions work because the couples have found ways to work out and honor each-others values and traditions, coming up with solutions for who they, personally are and want to be—for instance having a crèche, but not a tree.
Samira K. Mehta is assistant professor of religious studies at Albright College. You can follow her on Twitter.