Shared Traditions How Interfaith Families Celebrate the Season

Article excerpt

Byline: Jameel Naqvi

Should we light the Hanukkah candles or the Christmas tree? Cook potato latkes or candied yams? Buy our kids gifts for one holiday or both?

These are the questions many suburban interfaith families have to answer every December, when Christmas and Hanukkah are just weeks apart.

While single-faith families may complain of long lines at the mall and trips to the in-laws, interfaith families often have double the aggravation in their attempts to honor both Jewish and Christian traditions at almost the same time.

Despite the challenges, these families and the religious leaders who counsel them say the holidays can be a rich, rewarding time and an important learning experience for children.

One suburban Jewish congregation, the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Lincolnshire, serves a number of interfaith families who get support from other couples, congregation leaders and yearly workshops on interfaith marriages.

Rabbi Adam Chalom, who joined Kol Hadash in 2004, estimates 20 to 25 percent of his congregation is interfaith. Chalom says Kol Hadash helps interfaith families celebrate Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays while encouraging them to celebrate holidays from

other traditions in their homes.

"For a lot of people, their religious identity is really a cultural identity," Chalom said. "When it comes to holiday time, Christians want a cultural Christmas with the elves and the Christmas tree, and Jews want the potato pancakes and menorahs."

Families that Chalom counsels usually take one of two approaches to the holidays: They either combine both traditions, for example by putting dreidels on the Christmas tree or lighting a menorah on Christmas, or they celebrate the two holidays separately.

For more than 20 years, Kol Hadash Chairman Leora Hatchwell has had to make those decisions with her husband, Tom McCune, who was raised Presbyterian.

"Many of our couples are interfaith," Hatchwell said. "We've all struggled with the same things: How do you honor what you believe and respect and what your spouse believes?"

Every December, the McCune-Hatchwell family lights Hanukkah candles and decorates a Christmas tree in their Buffalo Grove home. For the past six years, their daughter, Callie, has thrown a themed "Christmukkah" party for multicultural families. Last year, the celebration had an Italian theme.

"All the food was Italian, except for the latkes," Hatchwell said.

Kol Hadash members Bill and Alexandra Brook celebrate both Bill's Jewish heritage and Alexandra's Serbian Orthodox upbringing.

"It was very important for both of us to celebrate and expose our kids to those traditions," Alexandra said.

The Glenview couple doesn't have quite the scheduling conflicts that some other interfaith families have because the Serbian Orthodox Church marks Christmas on Jan. 7, which in some years is a full month after Hanukkah.

Like many other interfaith families, the Brooks light a menorah and put up a Christmas tree in December. "On Serbian holidays, we all get together and talk about what those holidays mean," Alexandra said. …