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.

Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Welcome Yule! Interfaith Families Doing the Most

This time of year, interfaith families make our annual appearance in the media. The world wants to know: How do we do it all? Are we confused? Are we superficial? Are we exhausted? For readers of this blog, my current column at Huffington Post, about why we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, may seem rather obvious, but it is still stirring up a snowball fight of comments, both from people who insist we cannot do what we are doing, and people who appreciate our approach. Join the fray!

Meanwhile, here’s a series of small moments from the interfaith holiday season in our family.

Advent. I asked the kids (both now officially bigger than me, at ages 17 and 14) if they wanted an Advent calendar. They said yes. I bought the ubiquitous chocolate-filled cardboard calendar, at a suspiciously cheap price of $5. I checked that it was “made in Canada” and not in China. Nevertheless, the chocolate was so crummy that my son ran outside to spit it in the driveway.  Advent Fail. On the other hand, I have been touched by some of the Advent offerings posted on facebook by my friends, including glorious music by the Mediaeval Baebes, and a frenetic and surreal liturgical dance by Steven Colbert, which I find somehow deeply spiritual, perhaps because I know that in spite of his hilarious cynicism, he is an ardent Catholic and Sunday School teacher. Advent win.

Hanukkah. We already shopped, as a family, at an Alternative Gift Fair this year, and identified charities to fund for various nights of Hanukkah. We gave each of our two teenagers $50 to spend, and they picked out delivery of a bicycle through Bikes for the World, dental checkups for 10 Mayan children in Guatemala, one week of fresh vegetables for a local family from our local farmer’s market, and socks and underwear for our local soup kitchen.

A Sprinkling of Christmas, and Hanukkah. I made Christmas and Hanukkah cookies with a fabulous group of women friends. I try not to mix the holidays together, and I am not the least bit comfortable with the star-of-David tree-topper being marketed this year, but I think it’s kosher to let Hanukkah and Christmas cookies co-exist on a counter-top for a few seconds before they are devoured.

Christmas, with a Little Hanukkah. We trimmed our tree this week. My husband wrapped our porch with lights, and then the kids had their trip down memory lane unwrapping the ornaments. Usually, we listen to Christmas classics while tree-trimming, but because we are all still smitten with the Pink Martini holiday album from last year, we allowed a tiny bit of Christmas/Hanukkah crossover to occur when their irresistible version of Flory Jagoda’s Sephardic Hanukkah song “Ocho Candelikas” (with guest vocals by NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro) came on.

Welcome Yule! We heard a rousing live version of Ocho Candelikas this week, at the Christmas Revels, believe it or not. Every year, the Revels weave together some of the pagan and Celtic influences on Christmas. This year’s Revels was a brave departure, as it was set in the “golden age of Al-Andalus,” on the Iberian Peninsula in the medieval period when Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures co-existed and recombined. We have been cautioned by academics, recently, not to over-romanticize this period, and the program at the show carefully pointed out that the “level of tolerance varied significantly by time and place.” Nevertheless, after years of Christmas Revels set in different historical periods and geographic settings, it was gratifying to see Judaism, and Islam, represented on the stage. And I see no reason not to be inspired in this season by the vision, however ethereal and ephemeral, of a time and place for religious harmony.

 

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 (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

In Defense of (Interfaith) Christmas

Growing up as an exotic half-Jew in a New England town right out of Currier and Ives, the very public celebration of Christmas made sense to me demographically, culturally, and somehow, esthetically . If you have a town hall from 1847 with a white steeple overlooking a perfect town green, it is hard to resist stringing lights on the tallest spruce. And if you have a colonial tavern on the other side of the green, it only makes sense to gather the townsfolk to sing carols with a brass band in front of the tavern on Christmas Eve. I bundled up and participated every year, but not without a certain amount of worry, introspection, and selective silence on red-flag lyrics.

As an adult in the diverse global village, I acknowledge that public Christmas displays can cause alienation, and raise all kinds of questions about who funds them, whether we should have community Hanukkah and Diwali and Eid celebrations, or whether the depths of winter would be better with no outdoor lights or indoor greenery. The American population is shifting, Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists now live in my New England hometown, and we have not yet fully grappled with these very real issues. On the other hand, many “100% Jewish” people, like my friend, blogger Susan Fishman Orlins, defend their right as Americans to indulge in secular Christmas rituals.

For my own children, we have chosen a pathway that minimizes the conflict over celebrating Christmas. The decision to raise them with both Judaism and Christianity means we can fully immerse ourselves in Christmas, without having to weigh and analyze each ritual and each ornament on the tree for hidden religious meaning. We don’t get hung up on whether the tree is a pagan symbol or refers somehow to the cross. We don’t get hung up on how angels figure in Jewish theology. We don’t get hung up on which carols feature Jesus, and which ones stick to sleighbells in the snow. As an interfaith child, and someone fascinated by the evolution of religious culture, I find all these questions interesting and worthy of mulling, preferably over a glass of mulled wine. But I do not have to work through them before tiptoeing into each holiday event with my husband and children. In educating our children about both religions, we have pledged to go as deep and wide into Christmas (and Hanukkah) as we can manage, con brio, stopping only just short of exhausting ourselves in the process.

Yesterday, my daughter went to the Best Buddies holiday party afterschool, and helped a girl with Down’s syndrome make a Christmas card, and reassured her when the Grinch yelled at his little dog Max. I am thankful that she did not have to feel conflicted about participating. And tonight, in our house, we will put on Nat King Cole and lift each ornament from its nest, and attempt to balance the white birds and tiny copper cookpots on each branch of the waiting tree. I am thankful that I do not have to feel conflicted about this annual moment of peace and joy. This Sunday, the last Sunday of Advent, all four members of our family will be part of the choir for the service of lessons and carols at our Interfaith Families Project. I am profoundly thankful that we do not have to feel conflicted about that. And on Christmas, we will share a roast beast with my pioneering interfaith parents, and all my siblings and their children: the Jewish grandchildren, the Catholic grandchildren, and the interfaith grandchildren. And we will know in the wisdom of our hearts, that deeper unity in which family transcends all boundaries.

 

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