Mixed-Faith Families Celebrate the Holidays

The Christmas Tree or the Menorah? Or both? For about 2.5 million families of mixed-faith marriages, the holidays are about respecting each others' traditions and balancing the needs of their faiths.

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Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah. In the homes of those who celebrate, the nine candles of the menorah will blaze brightly. Prayers will be chanted and gifts opened with excited hands.

And the day after tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Millions in this country will gather around brightly-lit trees and celebrate. Many American families are doing both.

More than one-third of all American Jews are married to Christians, and the rate of interfaith marriage is exploding, which leads this question - how do you handle the December holidays if your family is both Jewish and Christian?

NPR's Wade Goodwyn has one answer.

WADE GOODWYN: Cindy Marcus is Presbyterian, Stewart Marcus is Jewish, and their four children are being raised Jewish. But every December at the Marcus house there's a Christmas tree in the living room. And on the dining room table the decorations include seven Santa Clauses standing merrily among three menorahs and a music box dreidel. Cindy says Stewart is fine with all this now.

Ms. SANDY MARCUS: That was part of the pre-nup, that Santa would always come and the Easter Bunny would always come. He's always been supportive, but a lot of years I think to come around to. You know, this is a warm fuzzy time of the year that really is okay. I think it still disturbs him. I think it's more - I think his ancestors are rolling over in their graves.

Mr. STEWART MARCUS: The approach we take is, Christmas is a time when the family gets together, and it's the insanity of the house, and it's the kids are overcranked on one too many M&Ms, and opening up one too many gifts. And that's where we focus on.

GOODWYN: Their oldest daughter had her Bat Mitzvah last year. Their oldest son is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah. But they all love Christmas.

Ms. MARCUS: Olivia(ph) is only six months old. We obviously have three older children and she was our little surprise. And feeling very overwhelmed, I told the kids that we weren't going to put up a Christmas tree this year, that I just couldn't handle one more thing. And their response was, Huh! No, mom, we have to have a Christmas tree! It won't be the same! And I said, Well, we're going to Mimi and Papa's house. They'll have a tree. You know, whatever. You know, it kind of went back and forth for a few minutes. Then I turned to them and said, You all are Jewish anyway; it doesn't matter.

GOODWYN: At the Marcus house, there's no nativity scene, no celebration of the birth of Jesus whatsoever. Evangelicals have been complaining that American culture is increasingly taking Christ out of Christmas. But that's exactly what the Marcus family has done deliberately.

Mr. MARCUS: I've always felt religion is a very personal thing, and what does Judaism mean to me, and what is it that I tried to teach my kids? And what I try to teach them is Judaism is a contract with God. And your contract is real, real simple. Your contract is to make the world a better place every day and to make yourself better every day.

GOODWYN: This is not, however, going over big with Rabbi Jeremy Schneider at Temple Shalom, where the Marcus family are members.

Rabbi JEREMY SCHNEIDER (Temple Shalom, Dallas): How do I feel about Cindy and Stewart? I continue to support their desire to learn and to understand, and make meaning of the holidays in their lives.

GOODWYN: But underneath Rabbi Schneider's diplomacy is a man firm in his belief that mixing holiday traditions is a mistake.

Mr. SCHNEIDER: I think looseness is one way to describe it. I think ignorance is another. I think that we've gotten to the point where a lot of people don't understand what these things mean. The Christmas tree refers to the eternal life of Jesus, whereas the star at the top of the tree refers to the eternal star in Bethlehem. And the sap of the Christmas tree refers to the blood of Christ.

GOODWYN: American Jews and Christians are marrying in record numbers. In some reformed congregations, the interfaith couples outnumbered the completely Jewish couples. And interfaith couples are increasingly granting upon themselves the right to organize the December holiday their own way. Rabbi Schneider says he's amazed at what he's hearing out there.

Mr. SCHNEIDER: I'm surprised every day that I hear about new people that have tried new things. It was brought to my attention the idea of the hybrid. Someone saw a book in the mall called "Christmukkah"; it's sort of a Christmas and Hanukkah hybrid.

GOODWYN: Understand that Schneider is a moderate, which puts him squarely in the front lines of this cultural and religious battle, desperately fighting a rear guard action. And in the line right beside him are other moderates, like Reverend George Mason, pastor of one of the most prominent Baptist churches in Dallas.

Reverend GEORGE MASON: The aspect of religious identity is somewhat compromised in that way. And then the ultimate question is not just what happens to you, but what happens to your posterity. What faith do you pass on?

If you have no commitment to a way of life that has a particular pattern to it, that you would say is your experience of God, it lacks some of that stickiness of faith tradition.

GOODWYN: Reverend Mason and Rabbi Schneider come to this discussion powerfully equipped with thousands of years of religious tradition. But the Marcuses and other interfaith families bring with them an equally powerful dynamic, their instinct to have all the family members feel included in the December celebrations.

Ms. MARCUS: If there are rabbis out there that believe that what we're doing is anti-Jewish, I have such a strong opinion about that, that that's just wrong. I mean, I'm sorry, nowhere in the 11th commandment though shalt not have a Christmas tree. You know, it's just not part of what makes you Jewish.

GOODWYN: And Stewart Marcus strongly disagrees that allowing Christmas symbols in his home makes him and his children less of a Jew.

Mr. MARKISH: I would in fact say the opposite of that. You got to take a giant step back and say, what are we really trying to accomplish? And is it about some tree? Is it about a dreidel?

GOODWYN: Stewart says raising new children inside an interfaith marriage has spurred extensive religious discussions between him and the children. And Cindy says she is proud of her open-minded Jewish progeny. Tonight they will light eight candles and say the Hanukah blessings. Christmas Day at Mimi and Papa's will be joyful chaos.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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