When discussing the holidays in interfaith households, the first question is often “what do you do about the December Dilemma?” This question presupposes a towering problem that doesn’t really exist – or, at least, one that doesn’t have to. As a couple, Andrea and Matt fret more about which family they go to for Thanksgiving (which falls on the same day for everyone). For many interfaith households, there’s an assumption of the ‘other’- that they don’t really practice, they were brought up with an Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian Islamic) religion, or the religion they currently practice is also the one they were brought up with. As with all things, reality is much more complex, leading to a lot more nuance than just ‘do we put up a menorah AND a tree?’
Discussing traditio(ooooo)n in Judaism can become a closed loop: We do this because we’ve always done this and ‘we’ve always done this’ is why we should keep doing this. People who practice and celebrate differently can use discussion as an opportunity to get to the heart of things. Why do people do this? What does it actually mean? Has its meaning changed? Most importantly, what does it personally mean to me? If you can’t assume the person you’re talking to already knows something, it forces you to understand it better yourself, so that you can help them understand.
At first glance, Matt and Andrea do something totally different. Andrea was raised culturally Jewish, and grew into a builder and shaper of Jewish communities. Matt was raised in a vaguely agnostic-Protestant atmosphere, and later discovered the pre-Christian practices of Central and Northern Europe. They both celebrated the American consumer holiday of Christmas. Instead of a tug-of-war, they talked about what rituals (things we do) and events (things we do with other people) were the most important. They narrowed down to those that were the most similar across the holidays that they wanted to celebrate in the winter to highlight the most meaningful parts of both religions, and both childhoods.
Guess what? It turns out the fundamental heart of most winter holidays is pretty similar. All of the rituals that made the list focus on bringing light into the darkest month of the year. Through their years together, they’ve been to bonfires, attended tree lightings and menorah lightings, lit candles on the nights of Hanukkah and the nights around the Solstice (sometimes conveniently simultaneously), and hung up twinkle lights all over their apartments.
Like many people celebrating various winter holidays, after they make things light and warm, they eat a lot. Andrea and Matt knew their personal food preferences were way more important than faith traditions, so they embarked on a list of things they loved from their childhoods. From Trader Joe’s latkes to sourdough biscuits, blessings over wine to toasts for ancestors with mead, oatmeal pancakes to bagels and lox – there’s a lot of food that brings meaning and ritual to the couple through familiarity and tradition. In the end, it has very little to do with anyone else’s experience of the holiday.
This could be the hard part: figuring out how to balance too many events (and now Zoom events) around a whole bunch of holidays. Andrea and Matt have a pretty strict policy around this topic: say ‘yes.’ If they’re invited to someone else’s home or event (galas and fundraisers not included) around the holiday, they say yes. Sharing in the joy of the holidays is deeply important. What could be more fun or impactful than saying yes? They also do some careful calendaring around these events – starting at Thanksgiving – to make sure they prioritize seeing and spending time with everyone.
There’s no easy answer to anything in relationships, especially interfaith ones, but there’s an incredible opportunity to really discuss and think about what we find meaning in around the holidays. It’s also a good time as a couple to address the things we don’t find meaning in!
Don’t like eating goose or Chinese food on Christmas? Make a new tradition!
Don’t love feeling like you need to give every human you know a gift? Try donating to different causes in honor of your friends and family (or your whole office)!
Don’t want to fight traffic in the middle of the day on a holiday to be in two places at once? Find what’s important to you as a couple, even if it is over the course of a year!
About the Authors: Andrea and Matt were married in their favorite DMV vineyard in 2019 to celebrate their 6th anniversary of living together. Matt is a talented actor and writer with his sixth novel launching in December 2020. Andrea works in the Jewish non-profit space. They live in Adams Morgan near their fave coffee shop: Pitango.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.