Conflicted at Christmas? Embracing the Interfaith Pathway

In today’s New York Times, an article described the sadness and longing that Jewish converts feel at Christmas. In many cases, the Jews-by-choice are spouses in interfaith marriages hoping to fix the religious asymmetry in their families through conversion.

Although Judaism generally eschews proselytizing, Jewish institutions apply considerable pressure on interfaith spouses to convert. The argument goes that conversion is better for the children, who will otherwise be confused. And yet, it can be confusing for children to grow up with parents prone to blues during “the holidays,” parents who feel disconnected from their own parents and siblings, parents who may resent or regret the sacrifices they have made for the sake of an effort to achieve religious coherence or unity in the family.

I fully acknowledge that conversion is right for some individuals, and that choosing one religion is right for some interfaith families. All I want (for Christmas) is acknowledgment that there are benefits and drawbacks to choosing one religion for an interfaith family, just as there are benefits and drawbacks to celebrating two religions. And there is virtually no objective, scientific research that weighs the benefits and drawbacks. Each interfaith family must make this decision, and every decision has its costs and rewards.

In our interfaith family, we celebrated Christmas this year with abandon, and without regrets. We drank champagne, sang carols, ate a standing rib roast, exchanged presents and cookies with family and friends. Many years we have gone to church on Christmas eve. One year, my son even played the Virgin Mary in the Christmas pageant at our interfaith Sunday School.

My husband hangs glowing stars on our porch–an external marker of the Christmas spirit inside our home. I know that Christmas lights are hard for some Jewish spouses in interfaith marriages–we never had them on our house when I was growing up Jewish. How do we weigh the sadness of a Christian spouse who longs for lights, against the sadness of a Jewish spouse who is not entirely comfortable with those same lights?

My mother, born Christian, now considers herself a “common law Jew.” But I know that Christmas–the heirloom ornaments, the bulging stockings, the communal meal, the descendants gathered from near and far–sustains my mother throughout the year, and sustains every member of our multi-generational and multi-religious family. For me, embracing Christmas seems ideologically consistent with our desire to fully educate our children about both religions. And for us, though not for everyone, celebrating Christmas also works to minimize sadness.


Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

4 Replies to “Conflicted at Christmas? Embracing the Interfaith Pathway”

  1. Sue– I’ll always be in the more traditional Jewish continuity camp. But you have taught me that there are many ways to lovingly acknowledge Judaism., and yes, practice it. Love the “common law Jew!”

    Fa la la la la la!!!


  2. There are so many ways to be joyful, aren’t there? Your post reminded me of my pre-conversion married years. That’s when I felt most sad — trying to do the Christmas thing I loved with a spouse who just did not get it. Now, so many years later, my husband and I spent this Christmas day working on my website and replacing two toilets — and were happy as could be. Oh yeah, we also drank a bottle of Pinot Noir to usher in Shabbat!

  3. Chris–

    Thanks for the reminder that conversion is right for some, and can even cure those blues. And that the joy of a meaningful weekly Shabbat can outweigh a day or week or season of blues for others.

  4. You ask, “How do we weigh the sadness of a Christian spouse who longs for lights, against the sadness of a Jewish spouse who is not entirely comfortable with those same lights?”

    The answer, of course, will be different for every couple, but I think the meta-answer is that you sit down with your spouse and make the communication between you the “scale.” You each put your feelings, thoughts, fears and hopes onto it…and over time, maybe not right away, the scale will start to tilt in the right direction. For me and my non-Jewish spouse, we came to terms with the tree over the course of several conversations in which she expressed what it meant to her, and I told her about what it meant to me. She spoke of family togethernessl I spoke of fears of losing my identity. She assured me the tree was not some Trojan Horse for bringing Jesus into out lives, and I assured her that my Judaism did not have to come at the expense of things that mattered to her. As I said, not the same conversation every couple would have, but it worked for us. We have a tree, and I’m okay with it.

    As I’m sure you know, the question of how to weigh things is an ongoing project…

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