8 Ways to a Peaceful December in Interfaith Families

My little sister and I, in our interfaith family in 1964.

We have reached December, the last month of the third year of the pandemic. And whether you feel like you are in the mood for dancing or not, December means that many interfaith families are about to join in the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas. This year the dance involves new steps because the eight nights of Hanukkah end on Christmas Day. So, whether you celebrate one of those holidays, or both, or neither, all of us need to cultivate empathy for our partners and family members in December, while honoring our own needs, and being mindful of how this season can trigger both joy and sadness, especially in a year of pandemic.

Just before the pandemic, I delivered a new resource, The Interfaith Family Journal, to help any and every family figure out how to honor diverse religious or spiritual or cultural roots, and formative childhood experiences. This workbook can help you in claiming and creating a plan for December (and every other month) that works for your family. The Journal traces a process of writing prompts, discussion topics, and creative activities. The result is a unique resource for therapists, clergy, and families. Here, I distill from the Journal eight ways to plan for a deeper, more mindful, and peaceful season:

1. REFLECT

Ask yourself about how you experienced December as a child. What did you celebrate? How did you feel about Christmas music, decorations, movies, in American popular culture? Were you aware of being part of the religious majority or minority? How have those feelings changed over time?

2. DISCERN

Ask yourself which of your childhood winter holiday rituals you want to continue in adulthood, or take on in the future? What traditions do you want to transmit to any children in your life? Is this because they have religious meaning, spiritual meaning, and/or cultural meaning for you?

3. INQUIRE

Ask your partner(s) or other intimate family members or co-parents how they felt during December as children. Do you understand how your childhood experiences overlap, or diverge? What are the differences? What are the synergies?

4. EMPATHIZE

Ask your partner which public expressions of the season–in public town displays, on the radio, on TV–might make them feel joyful, nostalgic, sad, or alienated, this year. Do you understand why? How has this changed for them, over time? Note that secular or cultural does not necessarily mean less important than religious or spiritual!

5. SENSE

No matter what religious (or non-religious) affiliation(s) or identity you have chosen for your family or children, are there multi-sensory December experiences that you would like to retrieve, or pass down, or take on? Music? Recipes? Crafts? Is your partner okay with tasting, smelling, hearing these with you?

6. PLAN

The number of celebrations can feel overwhelming in December, especially for interfaith families. Make a plan! Which holidays this month will you spend with which extended family members (and when)? Which will you spend with friends? And which will you spend with just your partner(s) and/or kids? With the pandemic surging, balance celebrations you can do at home with zoom call celebrations with extended family. This is a good year to really focus on home-based traditions with your partner(s) and/or children! Make sure that your partner feels comfortable with the plan.

7. GIVE

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah as a family, December can be an inspiring time to think about helping your community and to prepare for New Year’s resolutions. Especially in this ongoing pandemic, community service can help to keep the midwinter blues at bay. Talk to your family members about starting a tradition of December giving, or December action, to help to heal your community or the world.

8. SNUGGLE

No matter which traditions you celebrate, the scientific reality is that this is the darkest and coldest time of year in the northern hemisphere. It is probably not a coincidence that near the midwinter solstice, we try to brighten our world with the Yule hearth, Christmas lights, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa candles, or firecrackers for the Chinese Lunar New Year. So be gentle with yourself, and with your family members, as we move through the darkest days of another challenging year, until we tilt again towards the sun.

Note: An earlier version of this piece was published in 2019 in Psych Bytes, a publication that subsequently folded in the pandemic.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

Dance of Hanukkah and Christmas: 8 Tips for 2022

The solar Gregorian calendar determines the timing of Christian holidays, while both the sun and moon guide the Jewish calendar. As a result, each year interfaith families who celebrate both must choreograph the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas in a new way. In 2022, the last night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Day. So this year, I am updating this guide because the dance will require some expert steps.

The convergence of the two holidays increases the complexity of preparation, and coordination, in order to give each its own time and space and integrity. But after more than 60 years of celebrating both holidays, I know that it can be done, without actually mixing or blending or fusing the two together. So here are my eight strategies for a nimble Hanukkah and Christmas dance this year:

1. Accept that balance occurs in the course of a year, not every day. On Christmas, it’s natural for those who celebrate both holidays to lean into Christmas. So in a year like this one, when Hanukkah ends on Christmas, why not shift the emphasis on Hanukkah to the start of the eight-day holiday? Try starting Hanukkah with mindful intention, and set the tone for the holiday early in the week, before the overlap with Christmas festivities.

2. When traveling, check your interfaith packing list. If you are going to be staying with Christian family members, remember to pack the Hanukkah menorah! (And, here’s a great children’s book about an interfaith family who forget to pack their menorah). In the excitement of Christmas Eve and the exhaustion at the end of Christmas day, don’t forget to set aside a few minutes to gather everyone to light candles for the last two nights of Hanukkah. This is a year to enjoy the synergy of a glowing Hanukkah menorah and a sparkling tree, and talk about the common theme of light at the darkest time of year. (And, an important safety tip: If you are going out to a church service or caroling, be sure the candles are safely burned out before you leave the house!)

3. Give Hanukkah gifts at the start. Consider frontloading gifts at the start of Hanukkah this year, rather than competing with Christmas at the end of the week. Some families like to emphasize books and clothes as Hanukkah gifts for children, rather than toys, to further differentiate the two holidays. Try to resist the false competition between the holidays that has given rise to the idea of piles of Hanukkah gifts. Be confident that when they are grown, children will remember lighting the candles, as much as a game or toy.

4. Time the parties. This year, Christmas lands squarely on the last weekend of Hanukkah. So for families who celebrate both holidays but want to keep them separate, the first night of Hanukkah, Sunday December 18th, is the obvious night this year to throw a Hanukkah party without overlapping with Christmas. Personally, I can barely fry enough latkes for my own crew. So in my family, we gravitate towards the simple weeknight vegetarian (or vegan) Hanukkah supper consisting of latkes, apple sauce, and salad. And as the pandemic continues, these intimate celebrations are a wise choice.

5. Tell the Hanukkah story. The religious freedom aspect of the Hanukkah story resonates in interfaith families drawn to social justice themes. We are lucky to live in a time and place with the freedom to marry for love, and to celebrate either, or both, or any religion. And we need to stand ready to protect the right for everyone to marry without restrictions on race, gender, and religion. Singing the Hanukkah song Rock of Ages (different from the Christian hymn of the same name) with English lyrics rather than Hebrew on the nights you celebrate with extended Christian family members will make the story, and the theme of opposing tyranny, more accessible to all.

6. Give to others. The final nights of Hanukkah this year would be perfect for giving back, in lieu of more gifts that compete with Christmas gifts. Stress that both holidays encourage us to care for those in need. Let children know that the legend of Saint Nicholas has him giving to the poor and the hungry. Engage children in deciding what causes they want to support with charitable donations for both holidays this year.

7. Organize acts of service. Christmas encourages empathy for those who, like Mary and Joseph, must travel and seek shelter. Hanukkah provides an opportunity to reflect on how Jewish history compels us to work to promote social justice. Celebrate these intertwined themes by planning and engaging in acts of service together to support refugees and religious minorities in the new year.

8. Try not to stress. As you move through the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas this year, don’t fret over a misstep or two. Many of us forget to light candles on occasion. Many of us feel judged, or still judge ourselves, for how we mark December holidays. Everyone has a different comfort level with where to place the Hanukkah menorah in relation to the Christmas tree. Through it all, do your best to find the still, small moments that create holiday peace and joy.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

The Gift of Love in December

Today, I am honored to post an essay from guest blogger Shai Wise. –SKM

Wise family photo

I was tempted to have this be about how the month of December taught me more about love growing up than almost anything else. Not because of gifts – though they were nice to receive. It wasn’t even because of seeing family although we did that too. It was because my parents balanced December in a way that always made me wonder why people would ask how they “handled it” or what they did about the “December dilemma.”

And it is true that December taught me about love because my dad put up the Christmas tree. Each year my Jewish father would take the box up from the basement. He would lay it out and before he could get too far into his project my mother would take us out to a movie so we wouldn’t learn any “new words.” But that is not what stays in my memory – that isn’t what feels important. It isn’t even that my father refused to allow lights on the tree because he was afraid of fire – because he was convinced we would burn the house down if we put lights on our artificial tree – and as best I can tell we had the same tree my whole childhood.

And I have so many images of December – of my father putting up that tree and my mother scraping wax off the menorahs. She would melt the wax and dig it out and make sure we each had a menorah fresh and clean for lighting candles. She never claimed Judaism as her tradition, she was raised Catholic and would say that it never left her. But she also said it was our tradition and she was going to make sure each holiday was observed and held in the respect it deserved. She never claimed Chanukah as Christmas but she claimed it for what it was – a holiday of revolution, resistance and light. And in preparing the menorahs, making latkes, making sure we read part of the story each night, she claimed it for my father. She loved it because she loved him, She loved it because she loved us.

But December taught me about love because of something else. It taught me about love because the December after my mother died. The first December I was home from college. The first Christmas without my mother. The first Chanukah without my mother. I received two gifts. A reminder from my father over the phone of how to clean wax out of a menorah, directly from my mother’s notes and when I got home the menorahs in our home, the dreidels were still out because my father had done his best to be my mother (even though by the time I arrived home Chanukah was over).

But there was something else. My father got out the Christmas tree and put it up. He didn’t have to. He could have decided that because my mother was gone he no longer needed to do this for her. He could have made the choice to remove himself from the task that he had done out of love for her – he could have stepped away from this one tradition and no one would have questioned him.

But he did it.

He did it because had always done it out of love for my mother. He had carried her in his heart as he put up her tree, the family’s tree, the tree that meant so much to her.

He did it because he knew that in coming home from college, having lost my mother so recently, I would need it. I would need to know that in losing her I wasn’t losing her traditions, her story and her light as well.

My father taught me about love one December when he stepped outside of his own tradition and into my mother’s story one last time so we wouldn’t lose her and her tree all at once.

Shai Wise was raised in an interfaith family in NY and now lives in a multifaith, multiracial family in WI. He has served as congregational clergy and in chaplaincy. He is a Red Sox fan who will cheer for the Brewers in a pinch.

Being Both: An Enduring Choice

Today, we consider a question I often hear from religious leaders:

  • Will interfaith families still choose “both” if our traditional religious institutions become more welcoming and inclusive?

The unspoken corollary seems to be:

  • Can I ignore this “being both” mishegas? It’s not really statistically significant, is it?

This question seems particularly relevant as the 10th anniversary of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family approaches. Approaching the question from a Jewish perspective (which is how many people seem to approach the question), we benefit from the fact that Jewish organizations have spent a lot of time and resources producing data on Jewish demographics. At the Berman Jewish Data Bank, you can peruse the local community studies from cities and regions across the country. Recently, I spent some time pulling out the relevant statistic from the most recent studies, to try to understand how many interfaith couples are choosing to raise children with interfaith education, or “Jewish and another religion.”

And, indeed, a significant percentage of interfaith couples are still choosing this pathway.

How Married Interfaith Couples with One Jewish Partner are Raising Children

2021 Studies Just JewishJewish & Another ReligionNot Jewish
Louisville 23 %27 %48 %
LA*422335
Kansas City 351445
Orlando441936
From the Berman Jewish Data Bank community studies
*when the partner of another religion claims a religion

The variation certainly relates to the different geographic settings, but also to different ways that samples were collected and questions asked. Notably, in Louisville KY, birthplace of my Jewish grandmother, more interfaith families were found to be raising children with Judaism and another religion (27%), than with Judaism alone (24%). In other recent studies, the percentage raising children with both religions was smaller, but still significant.

In LA, the researchers broke the interfaith families into two categories: Jews married to people claiming another religion, and Jews married to people of no religion. Not surprisingly, a much larger percentage of the partners of no religion were willing to raise “just Jewish” children. In LA alone, some 12,000 children are being raised Jewish and another religion.

The LA study was also notable in devoting a brief section to actually considering the question, “What does it mean when parents describe their children as being both Jewish and another religion?” But the response to the question is very brief. The researchers simply note that in this “both” group, “Few households attend any religious services regularly, whether Jewish or non-Jewish services.” The implication is that “both” is a synonym for “neither.” But as the person who has probably spent the most time observing and researching these families, that is simply false. Using service attendance as the primary indicator of religious or spiritual depth is archaic in 2022, when a profusion of online, DIY, and home-based religious and spiritual practices are flourishing, inside and outside the Jewish world.

But the bottom line here is that every recent Jewish communal study documents that the choice to give interfaith children an interfaith education cannot be ignored. And, as we will explore, there is every reason to believe that these studies undercounted the “being both” families.

Why Jewish Communal Studies Yield Skewed Data on Interfaith Families

The main issue with relying on these studies to document interfaith family life is that all of them were funded by Jewish foundations or organizations, ensuring a Jewish lens. For the most part, only the Jewish partners were interviewed. The religious identities of their partners are not even categorized (Catholic? Protestant? Hindu? Unitarian Universalist?).

A primary goal of most of these funders is to figure out how to increase the number of families “doing Jewish.” There is a reluctance to come to terms with what draws family to doing both. And thus there is no insight into what multiple religious practice looks like in these families–what it means, why it is valuable. Ironically, asking these questions could only help those who seek to increase Jewish engagement.

The most limiting factor in using these studies to think about “doing both, being both” families is the sampling. In order to make sure to reach as many Jews as possible, these studies used methods including identifying “Jewish” surnames, and outreach through Jewish organizations such as synagogues and Jewish schools. Obviously, these methods are less likely to reach interfaith families with Irish or South Asian surnames. And they are less likely to reach “doing both” families that have given up on Jewish institutions that keep excluding them, or who are just more interested in online and home-based practices, or who thrive on forming their own interfaith communities. None of these families are going to pop up on Jewish organizational lists.

Furthermore, these studies do not ask, “Why are you doing both?” So they provide no insight into whether or not these couples wanted to engage more deeply, and could not find welcoming communities. There is no consideration of the idea that these families may not feel a need to affiliate with traditional religious institutions for spiritual fulfillment, or even for community support.

It is clear that interfaith families doing both or being both have been, and are going to be, undercounted and misunderstood in these Jewish communal studies.

Nevertheless, even these Jewish communal studies show that we’re here, we’re demographically significant, and we’re not going anywhere.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Extra, Extra! Jewish Press Talks to Interfaith Partners

The complexity of interfaith family experiences. From the cover of The Interfaith Family Journal

We have to call it big news when a generally conservative Jewish media outlet summons 10 “non-Jewish spouses” of Jews and asks them about anything. So the publication of the piece in The Tablet last week, entitled “The Minyan: Non-Jewish Spouses,” represents progress. And that’s because most of the Jewish press coverage and academic work on interfaith families has been based on interviews and surveys with the Jewish partners, and only the Jewish partners. My book Being Both, almost a decade after publication, is still a rare source on what both partners in interfaith relationships think, and feel.

I also appreciated that two of the twelve “non-Jewish” partners in this group conversation are raising children with both family religions, and that they were allowed to explain what they see as the benefits of this choice. Andrea, who was raised Presbyterian, married a Jew, and now sees herself as interfaith, explains to the group, “I think that kind of bi-literacy, bilingualism, can increase our understanding in the world. Everything is so fractional right now, so divisive. I just have hope that people who are in interreligious marriages are maybe a microcosm for how the world can bridge difference.” And Kavya, a Hindu married to a Jew, adds “it’s not that novel, the idea that our children can celebrate two deep lineages and backgrounds.”

This published conversation also adds to the growing body of literature describing the tremendous damage done by exclusion of interfaith couples, including refusal to officiate at marriages, family members who refuse to visit, and family members who refuse to attend weddings. And it adds to the literature describing the tremendous damage done by gender-based religious gatekeeping in the form of excluding children of Jewish patrilineal descent. These parents describe a refusal to perform a bris, an interfaith child raised Jewish who studied and jumped through every Jewish hoop but was still called a non-Jew, and a rabbi who ripped tefillin off a boy’s body.

All of this is important for a Jewish audience to hear. And yet, this piece is also an example of a very focused Jewish lens, a lens that distorts the experience of people married to Jews through selection bias, and the choice of questions. To start with, not one of these 12 partners-of-Jews actually currently identifies as Christian, according to the bios. So the Jewish bias is already inherent in the selection of a sample of partners who have mostly left Christianity behind. The editors also “deliberately narrowed the field to those married to Jews who care about being Jewish.” What does that even mean? In this case, it means this is a conversation primarily among people who married “practicing” Jews and agreed to put aside their own religion, or who had left their own religion, and are raising “Jewish only” children. Eight out of ten couples with children in this sample are raising children “Jewish only,” which is a huge oversampling of that subgroup.

And, note that all of the questions, with the exception of a nod to the (arguably secular) Christmas tree and Easter eggs, are about Judaism. And even the tree and eggs are discussed in terms of their effects on the Jewish partners. The discussion topics include Passover, the High Holidays, Torah study, Israel, Jewish persecution, and conversion to Judaism. These partners are asked how their Jewish in-laws felt about the marriage, but not how their own (mostly Christian) parents felt. There are zero questions about how they feel about leaving their religions behind, whether there are traditions that they miss, what their children might gain from Christian (or Hindu) extended family. In the end, it’s an interesting discussion, but it’s not really about these partners of Jews at all. It’s about (once again) what it all means for Judaism.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Being Both, Book Birthday

Being Both Book Tour Swag of Yore

Today marks eight years since Beacon Press published my first book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

As more young couples continue to move away from institutional religious affiliation, some people have wondered if there is any need for a book (or two) on interfaith families.

And then, just yesterday, I realized once again how relevant this book still is. Mya Guarnieri Jaradat, an author and religion reporter for the Deseret News in Utah, published a lovely and moving piece centered on her Jewish and Muslim family. And I was honored to serve as a source of ideas, counsel, and affirmation, for that piece.

And then, this morning, a new study of the Jewish community in Chicago found 21% of (Jewish) interfaith families raising kids with two religions, as well as 12% of single Jewish parents, and even 1% of Jewish/Jewish parents. (This last category intrigues me. Presumably both parents identify as Jewish, but one or both also practices Buddhism or Paganism, or one or both parents are interfaith kids themselves).

So, even after eight years, and even in the pandemic, new people continue to discover the idea that you can honor more than one religious heritage. And I continue to be invited to engage with new communities, and new experts, as a consultant and speaker sharing my personal experiences as an interfaith kid and adult, and my research on #BeingBoth and #DoingBoth families.

In 2021 alone, here are just some of the marvelous opportunities I have had, all online, and in spite of the pandemic:

  • I gave a Shabbat talk on the interfaith family in the Yitro portion (the story of Jethro), for a community with the delightful name, Wandering Jews of Astoria, in NYC.
  • I made a second appearance on the Interfaith Alliance’s State of Belief radio with Rev. Welton Gaddy, speaking on Love Across Differences, for Valentine’s Day.
  • I was on the Array of Faith podcast with J. Dana Trent, recorded for her World Religions course in North Carolina. Listen in to Susan Katz Miller: Interfaith Practitioner.
  • I spoke on a panel called Personal Perspectives on Intermarriage, hosted by Nisa-Nashim, the Jewish-Muslim Women’s Network in the UK. 
  • I gave a guest lecture in a Jewish Studies course taught by Rabbi Vanessa Ochs at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.
  • I was a guest expert at an Interfaith Couples Workshop, sponsored by the Jewish outreach organization 18doors, in NYC. (They used to be interfaithfamily.com).
  • I co-facilitated a workshop with Aisha Hauser on Supporting Interfaith Families in Our Communities, at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (UUAGA). 
  • I was a guest on the Tattoos and Torah podcast with Rabbi Iggy Gurin-Malous at the T’Shuvah Center in NYC. We had a marvelous conversation on interfaith, intercultural, bilingual, and LGBTQ relationships, in the contexts of spirituality, addiction and recovery.

And coming up, I have the honor of co-teaching a workshop with Rabbi Mark Sameth, entitled “Non-Binary God, Non-Binary Spirituality.” Watch this video in which we get all excited about the workshop, and register now to join us!

So, yes, Being Both still feels relevant, and important. People from interfaith families are setting new tables, creating new spaces, and changing the way religion and spirituality will be practiced in the United States, and around the world, going forward.

This work is not done. And this work still brings me joy.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Familyand The Interfaith Family Journal. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @SusanKatzMiller.

Interfaith Zoom Life in Pandemic Times

I have always loved February. My parents had their interfaith wedding in a blizzard on February 13th. So I love the deep February snow when it comes. And I love the chocolate hearts, since the first day for my parents as a married interfaith couple was Valentine’s Day, a day devoted to love. During the six years of my life when I lived on the equator in Senegal and Brazil, I missed the snow (and Valentine’s Day). But in the Brazil years, the joy of Carnaval in February was the highlight of the cultural calendar, and a peak life experience for me, creating a new layer of love for February.

This year, February feels grey and icy cold indeed, as our isolation from each other goes on, and on. We are marking our first pandemic February, closing in on a full year living with masks, and distancing, and the loss of almost 2.5 million lives to COVID-19 worldwide (and almost half a million lives in the US). All of us are mourning. All of us are traumatized. And I wonder at times whether it is relevant, or appropriate, to carry on with my work making space for interfaith families and interfaith identities, or any other kind of “non-essential” work.

But the light is returning, more people are getting vaccinated, and we have hope that we will emerge eventually into a new normal. The story of my parents teaches me that love, combined with persistence and empathy, is essential. And so, I still get joy from supporting interfaith couples and families. So here is an update on what I’ve been up to during these pandemic times.

My work with interfaith families now takes place entirely on zoom, podcasts, telephone, and the internet, which has created the ability to support people anywhere, in any time zone. I have acted as a resource this year for undergraduate students, graduate students, and divinity students, all studying interfaith families, on several countries. This gives me great hope that there will be more academic literature soon, telling the diverse stories of interfaith families, across the globe.

I can zoom into religious studies classrooms anywhere now, without the travel expense. I am honored to be the guest this week, talking about interfaith families and interfaith identities, on Array of Faith. I am interviewed on this podcast by J. Dana Trent, who wrote The Saffron Cross, a book describing her own Christian and Hindu interfaith marriage. Now she has taken pandemic classroom guests to the next level. For the students in her Introduction to World Religions course, she and her husband created the Array of Faith podcast to host speakers with various religious identities.

And in honor of Valentine’s Day this week, I was invited back to State of Belief, the long-running radio show hosted by Rev. Welton Gaddy and the Interfaith Alliance. You can hear me there this week, chatting about interfaith love, interfaith families, and what has changed since I last appeared on the show eight years ago. Welton hosts the show from Monroe, Louisiana, which is one of the towns my rabbi great-grandfather served as he made his way up and down the Mississippi in the 19th century.

Another highlight of my professional year in the pandemic was a zoom keynote at The Guibord Center in LA, in conjunction with an expert on mixed race families, in which we addressed the intersection of these two rich and complex worlds. There is a significant overlap of interfaith families, interracial families, and LGBTQ+ families, and I hope to engage more with these synergies, going forward.

Meanwhile, the support networks I created online have become a refuge, where we can engage with each other without masks or fear of contagion. For interfaith families practicing two religions (any two or more religions or secular identities), join the private Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG) on facebook. And for adult interfaith kids, I recently started up the People of Interfaith Family Heritage private group on facebook. More on that project soon!

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Families in the Pandemic, at Christmas

No one was dreaming of this Christmas.

A Christmas without family, friends, or going to church. A Christmas without choirs, or caroling. Even in that fictional scenario without packages, boxes, and bags, when the Grinch tried to stop Christmas, people imagined they would always be able to stand in a circle and clasp hands. But not this year.

Early in the pandemic, I wrote about a silver lining, of being able to gather on zoom with people from across the country and the globe. I wrote of being able to zoom into accessible services anywhere, of trying out different religious communities through the miracle of technology. If you are looking for a Christmas Eve service designed by and for interfaith families, you are welcome to zoom in to the Interfaith Families Project in DC this year.

But, here we are, ten months in, and the silver linings are all wearing thin. We try to appreciate the calm, the stillness, the intimacy, perhaps the shift away from commercialism, of holidays this year. Or perhaps we appreciate the ability to more easily control holiday menus (in our house, this means more vegan options!).

But the pandemic is surging. Our relationships with those we live with full-time may be fraying. And depression, major and minor, is now pandemic too. The Christmas music that feels the most on point this year may be Judy Garland singing the mournful “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or the wistful Charlie Brown special classic “Christmastime is Here.”

In the past, I have written and spoken about the importance in interfaith families of feeling empathy for each other, of being gentle with our partners and children in this season of long nights and short, cold days. And that has never been more true than this year, on this solstice, at this pandemic apex.

I had not dreamed of some of the challenges facing interfaith families this year. Most interfaith families in the US, Canada, and Europe have one Christian partner. For many who are atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, or Pagan, having a Christian partner has meant, in the past, celebrating Christmas with our partner’s extended family. Some of these interfaith families have preferred not to have a Christmas tree, or lights on the house, or prepare a Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, or hang stockings, but have been glad to experience these Christmas traditions every year at the homes of a partner’s parents or extended family.

This year, it is not possible, not safe, to celebrate at Grandma’s house. (And some of us have lost grandparents, and parents, in the epidemic). Instead, isolated at home, many interfaith families have had to make decisions about whether to have a first Christmas tree, a first visit from Santa, hang lights for the first time outdoors. In some families, a partner who did not grow up with these traditions may now feel new pressure to host them, adding to holiday sadness. In some families, a partner who grew up celebrating these traditions with extended family may feel the additional sadness of celebrating in isolation with a partner who did not grow up with those traditions. And, some interfaith families have already been through the parallel sadness of negotiating these same intersections of interfaithness and pandemic isolation over Diwali, or Hanukkah. For Pagans, the same may be true for the winter solstice, and Yule.

There are no right or wrong answers to the question of how to navigate this very hard season, in this very hard year. For some families, it may feel right to “haul out the holly” and “turn on the brightest string of lights.” For others, it may feel right to just try to let it go, and hibernate through the winter, until spring is here at last. As in all years, as in all families, the right way for your family to be an interfaith family can only be discerned through intimate conversations. But in every case, and especially this year, we are called on to be as empathetic as we can possibly be, and to be extra gentle with each other, as we await the return of the light, and our turn for the vaccine.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

8 Ways to a Peaceful December in Interfaith Families

My little sister and I, in our interfaith family in 1964.

We have reached (finally!) the last month of the longest year I can remember, 2020. And December means that many interfaith families are about to join in the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas, whether or not they feel like dancing. This year, the eight nights of Hanukkah start on December 10th, midway between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Personally, I prefer these years when Hanukkah begins and ends before Christmas, so that each holiday gets separate celebration, and there’s even a moment to pause between them.

Whether you celebrate one of those holidays, or both, or neither, all of us need to cultivate empathy for our partners and family members in December, while honoring our own needs, and being mindful of how this season can trigger both joy and sadness, especially in a year of pandemic. We are also becoming more aware that “interfaith family” doesn’t always mean Jewish and Christian. The fastest-growing “interfaith” demographic, according to Pew Research, is Christian and “religious none” (a catch-all for atheists, secular humanists, agnostics, the spiritual-but-not-religious, and others who couldn’t find a better box to check). And an increasing number of interfaith families include members who are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, celebrate indigenous religions, or reclaim African diasporic traditions including vodun, Santeria, or candomblé. Our interfaith families are becoming more richly complex.

Last year, I created a new resource, The Interfaith Family Journal, to help any and every family figure out how to honor diverse religious or spiritual or cultural roots, and formative childhood experiences, while claiming and creating a plan for December (and every other month) that works for your family. The Journal traces a five-week process of writing prompts, discussion topics, and creative activities. The result is a unique resource for therapists, clergy, and families. Here, I distill from the Journal eight ways to plan for a deeper, more mindful, and peaceful season:

1. REFLECT

Ask yourself about how you experienced December as a child. What did you celebrate? How did you feel about Christmas music, decorations, movies, in American popular culture? Were you aware of being part of the religious majority or minority? How have those feelings changed over time?

2. DISCERN

Ask yourself which of your childhood winter holiday rituals you want to continue in adulthood, or take on in the future? What traditions do you want to transmit to your children? Is this because they have religious meaning, spiritual meaning, and/or cultural meaning for you?

3. INQUIRE

Ask your partner(s) or other intimate family members or co-parents how they felt during December as children. Do you understand how your childhood experiences overlap, or diverge? What are the differences? What are the synergies?

4. EMPATHIZE

Ask your partner which public expressions of the season–in public town displays, on the radio, on TV–might make them feel joyful, nostalgic, sad, or alienated, this year. Do you understand why? How has this changed for them, over time? Note that secular or cultural does not necessarily mean less important than religious or spiritual!

5. SENSE

No matter what religious (or non-religious) affiliation(s) or identity you have chosen for your family or children, are there multi-sensory December experiences that you would like to retrieve, or pass down, or take on? Music? Recipes? Crafts? Is your partner okay with tasting, smelling, hearing these with you?

6. PLAN

The number of celebrations can feel overwhelming in December, especially for interfaith families. Make a plan! Which holidays this month will you spend with which extended family members (and when)? Which will you spend with friends? And which will you spend with just your partner(s) and/or kids? With the pandemic surging, balance celebrations you can do at home with zoom call celebrations with extended family. This is a good year to really focus on home-based traditions with your partner(s) and/or children! Make sure that your partner feels comfortable with the plan.

7. GIVE

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah as a family, December can be an inspiring time to think about helping your community and to prepare for New Year’s resolutions. Especially after the horrific 2020 we have all just experienced, community service can help to keep the midwinter blues at bay. Talk to your family members about starting a tradition of December giving, or December action, to help to heal your community or the world.

8. SNUGGLE

No matter which traditions you celebrate, the scientific reality is that this is the darkest and coldest time of year in the northern hemisphere. It is probably not a coincidence that near the midwinter solstice, we try to brighten our world with the Yule hearth, Christmas lights, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa candles, or firecrackers for the Chinese Lunar New Year. So be gentle with yourself, and with your family members, as we move through the darkest days of this most difficult of years, until we tilt again towards the sun.

Note: I wrote an earlier version of this piece last year for Psych Bytes, a publication that subsequently folded in the pandemic.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

The Interfaith Family of Kamala Harris

Kamala means lotus in Sanskrit. Photo Susan Katz Miller

When Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running-mate yesterday, he created the possibility of the first interfaith kid in an interfaith marriage in the White House. ““I grew up going to a black Baptist Church and a Hindu temple,” Harris told the Los Angeles Times. And at her marriage to Jewish husband, attorney Douglas Emhoff, they included both a flower garland from the Hindu wedding tradition, and breaking a glass from the Jewish tradition. So a self-identified Baptist with a Hindu mother and a Jewish husband may be headed to the White House (inshallah). We can only hope this helps to normalize the rich religious complexity many of us now embody personally, and in our families.

Kamala’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a Tamil immigrant from India, met her father Donald Harris, a Black immigrant from Jamaica, when they were both doctoral students at UC Berkeley. They gave both their daughters Sanskrit names, to reenforce their connection to Hindu culture–Kamala means lotus, and is a form of the goddess Lakshmi. Their mother, a cancer researcher, also took Kamala and her sister Maya back to Madras to spend time with their Hindu family. Donald Harris became a Stanford economics professor. The couple took their young girls to civil rights demonstrations, but divorced when the girls were still small. Harris has described how they were part of the Black community in their Oakland, California, neighborhood, even after her parents divorced.

Harris chose Howard University, and pledged the powerful Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha,. She is close to her Jewish stepchildren and in-laws, and did a hilarious but affectionate impression of her Jewish mother-in-law. She’s also close to her husband’s ex-wife, Kerstin, who hails from Minnesota (I don’t see any published account of Kerstin’s maiden name or religious upbringing). The stepkids call Kamala “Momala,” and Harris has written that “We sometimes joke that our modern family is almost a little too functional.”

It’s worth noting that another interfaith kid, Maya Rudolph, played Kamala Harris in an Emmy-nominated series of appearances in the Saturday Night Live primary campaign skits. Rudolph’s dad is an Ashkenazi Jew; her mother was Black singer Minnie Ripperton. A lot of folks (I suspect including Kamala Harris) are looking forward to Rudolph reprising that role in this election season.

This morning, it was interesting to see The New York Times describing Kamala Harris with many of the phrases and images that were used for Barack Obama (another interfaith kid): “shaped by life in two worlds,” “without ever feeling entirely anchored to either,” “difficult to pin down,” and “by virtue of her identity, not like any other.” The language referred to insider/outsider political status, but also, clearly echoes her complex racial and religious heritage.

Going forward, I look forward to the time when language that telegraphs discomfort with racial and religious ambiguity wanes. I look forward to more people with rich and complex heritage and multiple religious claims and practices rising to prominence, and speaking to the benefits, not just the challenges, of our experiences.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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