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.

Thanksgivukkah, Syncretism, and the Luxury of Interfaith Humor

Centerpiece by Bethany Karn, ButterKup Flowers
Bethany Karn, ButterKup Flowers

I have to admit to ambivalence about Thanksgivukkah. Why do I feel this way? It has something to do with the fact that, as interfaith families who celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, we spend a lot of time explaining that we don’t mix or merge holidays: we give each one specific religious meaning. I am happiest when Hanukkah and Christmas whirl to the farthest reaches of their orbital dance, at opposite ends of the winter calendar, giving each holiday the space it deserves. We don’t do Chrismukkah.

But why not merge the “secular” American holiday of Thanksgiving with a Jewish holiday when they happen to overlap? Certainly, these two holidays have a natural affinity and synergy: both celebrate religious freedom, both encourage gratitude, and both feature rich feasting. What’s not to like? And yet, I have found myself side-stepping (until now) the frenzy of menurkeys, pumpkin latkes with cranberry sauce, and Thanksgivukkah songs.

I would not be the first to note that part of the zeal for Thanksgivukkah this year is driven by commercialism, and that part of it seems to stem from a sort of sublimated or frustrated desire for the far-less-kosher Chrismukkah. And yet some of those who are reveling in the “hybridity” of Thanksgivukkah would be strongly opposed to interfaith families raising children with both family religions. The layers of complexity and irony here go deep, for such a giddy and essentially harmless holiday.

Speaking of Hanukkah and Christmas, this week, progressive Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (and no, that is not an oxymoron) wrote a fascinating column about why he actually celebrates a new product called a Menorah Tree (a chanukiah wound with greenery and lights). I spend so much time and energy distancing myself from this kind of holiday mash-up. So Rabbi Brad kind of blew my mind by writing “What religious custom isn’t at least somewhat syncretistic? Every sacred tradition belonging to every religion I know was once an innovation, and most of them have their roots in, or were borrowed from, some other community.”

True! I made exactly that point in Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. But many will hear the message more clearly (and with less resistance) coming from a traditional religious leader, than from an interfaith families activist. An Orthodox rabbi can get away with embracing a Menorah Tree, while a second-generation interfaith parent, not so much. I keep my distance.

So forgive me if the idea of turkey-stuffed donuts makes me (and, apparently, Kathie Lee Gifford) slightly queasy. We will take out our traditional brass menorah on Thanksgiving this year at sundown. It won’t be adorned with solstice greenery (we will celebrate the winter solstice on the solstice). The moment to light the candles for the second night of Hanukkah will probably arrive sometime toward the end of our Thanksgiving dinner. But I am not going to make a big deal about the overlap.

I really do not want to come off as humorless, or as the Grinch who stole Thanksgivukkah, especially since this convergence won’t come around again for an estimated 77,000 years or so. I was happy to loan one of my menorahs out to a friend–wildly talented floral designer Bethany Karn–so that she could create a Thanksgivukkah centerpiece for a local contest. I laughed with delight at her extravaganza of vintage pilgrim and turkey candles, gelt and dreidels, gourds and pheasant feathers. In fact, I am going to use it at a book launch event this week.

But I am always very, very cautious when it comes to religious humor. If you’re Jewish, you can get away with hilarious R-rated Hanukkah humor, like my friend Sean Altman (aka Jewmongous) does. (His website warns: “not recommended for children under 13 unless you’re raising them to be sailors.”) And I suppose if you’re Christian, you can do the same with Christmas. For those of us born into interfaith families, we have to be careful when we venture into religious comedy in either direction, because we may be seen as “others” rather than “insiders,” and thus lose the right to joke around with impunity.

So yes, I giggled at this off-color Thanksgivukkah horror film trailer parody. And I laughed til I cried watching Stephen Colbert’s attack on Thanksgivukkah. He can get away with this, I believe, as a Catholic, in part because of his ongoing dialogue with the (Jewish) Jon Stewart. And because, well, they are Stewart and Colbert. And I’m not. So I am just going to have to play it straight here. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Thanksgiving. Celebrate, and give thanks.