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.

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.