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7 Tricks That Helped Our Interfaith Family Finally Sort Out the Holidays

Aren't all of us juggling (at least) two family's traditions?

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In the ten years David and I have been together, first as a liberal Jew/ liberal Protestant interfaith couple, and then as part of a greater interfaith family, the holidays have never not been a problem. We’ve dealt with them every which way, and every year they’ve been… rough.

Christmas, for all its stress, was always my favorite part of the year. So when I started dating David (the month before Christmas), ten years ago, we talked about the holiday right away. In that first month, I remember saying that I’d be fine raising my kids Jewish, that I might even convert, but the deal was that I was never giving up Christmas. David agreed, because it’s really easy to agree with your brand new girlfriend who’s offering to make a big sacrifice for you, when you don’t have to look at an actual Christmas tree in your living room.

Years passed, we moved in together, and David learned that while I really loved the season, Christmas was just as bad as he had feared, just differently bad. He learned that families can act nuts over December 25th, that buying tons of presents is stressful, and that he had to deal with a partner trying to balance a bunch of traditions, half of which she didn’t even like.

We got a tree. He hated it. Then we didn’t get a tree (because I didn’t want him to hate it). I hated it. Then I got serious about converting to Judaism and decided it might be unethical for us to get a tree. I hated it. David had to start coming to family Christmases. He hated it. He bitched about how terrible the whole holiday was and how he hated finally having to be involved. I hated it. I listened to carols sometimes and felt guilty. He hated it, I hated it, everyone hated it.

There was, blessedly, one bright spot in the whole December mess. It was that we were both trying really hard to make each other happy. In fact, we were often trying so hard to make each other happy that we were making ourselves miserable (and then complaining about it), but we were really, really trying. We gave each other thoughtful gifts. We tried to sneak in little traditions for our family of two, in our tiny apartment, on the days when we were not expected to be with one family or another. December was a mess, but we were both bending over backwards to try to keep the other person happy.

Till this year. Maybe it takes a decade? Maybe it takes a child old enough to actually participate in holiday rituals, but this was the year that we made big changes, stopped complaining, and started enjoying the season.

Though there are as many ways to sort out the holidays as there are interfaith families (or hell, just regular families), here is what finally worked for us.

1. Have All The Conversations (And Then Have Them Five More Times)

The only reason we had a shot at finally sorting out the holidays is that we’d had the conversations. All the conversations… about a million times. And not only had we talked (and talked and talked) we’d also lived with interfaith Decembers long enough that we’d both experienced some of the other person’s reality first hand. While I hope it doesn’t take other families ten years of conversations to sort this out, it does take a whole lot of communicating.

By this year, I knew exactly how our whole culture pretending that Christmas is a secular holiday made David feel. But more than that, I knew what it was like to navigate a stranger talking to my kid about Santa Claus—who he currently doesn’t know about, and won’t ever be taught to believe in. (On the one hand it’s awkward and isolating, on the other hand they are genuinely trying to be sweet with a toddler.) And David didn’t just know how I felt about Christmas Carols (Love the traditional ones! Hate the pop ones! Feel guilty about listening to all of them at home now!) and Christmas Day (Stressful! Important to family!), he knew why, because he’d lived it all.

For us, there was no shortcut to understanding in great depth and complexity, how we each felt about December. Once all those conversations had been had (and had, and had) we were in a better place to ask each other for compromises, because we knew exactly what we were really asking for, and exactly why we needed it.

2.Stop Lying (To Yourself) About What’s Fine

For years, I have insisted (mostly to myself) that I was fine with not having a tree, or not celebrating Christmas in our home. I wrapped this in various ethical arguments—if I had converted to Judaism, or even just committed to raising a child Jewish—it wouldn’t be ethical for me to have a tree, so I needed to be fine with it. In a sure sign that I was lying, I would sneak listen to all my favorite Christmas Carols when nobody was around, and then pretend I hadn’t.

This year, I decided to start being honest. I told David that it wasn’t working for me to not have a tree, and not celebrate Christmas in some form in our home. I pointed out that for as long as we only celebrated Christmas with family, we’d be stuck with a bunch of traditions that didn’t work for us, unable to work out our own solutions. And, as the cherry on top of the sundae, I told him (super nicely) that his constant bitching about Christmas was forcing me into a pit of misery for all of December, and I needed him to stop.

After years of being totally afraid to say any of this, David just looked at me, shrugged, and said, “Okay.” When I pushed him on it—BECAUSE IT COULDN’T POSSIBLY BE THAT EASY RIGHT—he told me, “Sure. We’ll have a tree, and do some Christmas things, and I’ll stop complaining.” And that was literally that.

In fact, I came out the other morning and found the lights on the Christmas tree on… because he thought they were pretty. This year was a game changer.

3.Focus on the Whole Holiday Season, Not Just a Few Days

In my family, Christmas Day has a history of being a true cluster-fuck. Over the years family members have attached themselves to various traditions, and hold on to them with an iron grip. Unfortunately, everyone seems to have picked different traditions to be inflexibly attached to, giving us a nearly endless list of Things That Must Be Done Or Someone’s Christmas Will Be Ruined. (Sounds a lot like weddings, am I right?) That means, one, Christmas day is super high stress as we try to check all the boxes exactly. And two, the day is endlessly long and exhausting as we try to cram each damn tradition in. Even if you get every check box marked off, it’s often not any fun.

Because of this, David’s spent years trying to figure out WTF I like about Christmas in the first damn place. After some thinking I realized that what I like (at least in theory) is the month long holiday season. I like the endlessly varied combination of carols, hot cocoa, fires, sparkly displays, holiday parties, pretty dresses, candles, and even wrapping things. Christmas Day, I can kind of take or leave.

After realizing that, we decided to totally refocus this year. Instead of seeing December as some mad scramble towards December 25th, we decided to just view it as a month of celebration. We both have reasonably quiet professional lives at the end of the year, so we made our goal to just take some of the pressure off and try to do fun things. This made celebrating as an interfaith family a whole lot easier, since we have eight days of Hanukkah to mix in with our Christmas festivities, plus our very favorite, New Year’s. No matter how Christmas Day goes, if we hit January 1st with a feeling that we had a fun, holiday-filled month, we’ll be thrilled.

4.Make A List of What You Care About

Once I realized that the goal was to enjoy the whole festive season, I sat down to make a list of things I cared about. Instead of forced merriment and things I had to check off my list, I was making a list of the things I wanted to make sure I got to before December was over. It was a gentle reminder list, of the things that make me feel like I’ve remembered to celebrate the holidays before it was too late. Here is an abbreviated version of what I jotted down and stuck on the fridge:

  • Christmas tree decorating
  • Menora lighting
  • Latke night
  • Eating stollen
  • Christmas crackers
  • Sending New Year’s cards
  • Donating to a toy drive
  • Having a fire
  • Holiday cocktails and hot chocolate
  • Displaying holiday cards on the mantle (with a garland)
  • Local APW staff holiday get together
  • Champagne on New Year’s Eve

5.Set Aside Time To Create Your Own Traditions (The Date Doesn’t Matter)

The holidays often seem like one giant tug of war between extended family, and taking care of our own little nuclear family. In our household, the holidays aren’t quite the holidays without everyone else (even when family feels like a giant mound of stress), but also… what about us?

At the end of every holiday season, we end up having a conversation about how frustrated we are that we haven’t gotten a chance to work out what traditions we’d like to have in our family, because we were spending time keeping up everyone else’s holiday traditions. Last year, that conversation took on new urgency. We knew that this year, with a two-year-old, we’d be getting our first chance to shape how he viewed the holidays, and we wanted a strong voice in that. But at the same time, we didn’t want to abandon our families. So… what to do?

Turns out, the answer was staring us in the face all this time. While December 25th (and the days directly after) are time we generally dedicate to our wider family, the weeks before that are more or less ours. This year, instead of arranging to rush to visit our families at the earliest possible date, we set aside a day just for us. (We picked the Sunday before Christmas.) Our plan is to have our own holiday meal and day here, doing things however the hell we want to do them (probably inviting people who are in town without family). We’ll get to create traditions and enjoy our own mini-holiday. After that, December 25th is just a bonus day to spend with family.

6.Less Presents, More Experiences

Like so many people, I’ve found that my joy in the holidays is increasingly buried under all of the… stuff. And it’s not just the stuff, it’s the time and stress it takes to acquire the stuff. And then it’s hoping you got it right and didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. In that whole process, the joy of giving people gifts just because you love them has sort of gotten lost.

After a lot of conversation over the past few years, we decided that we didn’t want our kids experience of the holiday to be all about mountains of gifts. We know that’s easier to set up from the get-go, than to try to dial back once they’re old enough to know what unwrapping a mountain of presents feels like. So we’ve pared way, way back. We buy one gift for each extended family grouping, or child (something we enjoy doing), and then within our nuclear family, each of us gets one or two gifts. We’ve shifted the focus of December to experiences. Making food together, eating cookies, having cocktails, popping crackers, even going to movies. If it’s fun, we do it. And it turns out almost anything is more fun than spending hours opening piles of gifts.

7.Try To Enjoy What You Do Have, Instead of Focusing On What You Don’t

We’ve spent years tangled in the frustration that neither of us is able to have holidays like we had them as children. We’ve spent ages really disappointed that our partner didn’t care about (or even like) the same things that we liked in the month of December. The whole month felt a bit like a disappointing loss, every damn year.

This year, it was like the whole snow globe got turned over, and I could see the scene in a whole new light. As I was trying to create my list of things I wanted to do in the month of December, I started googling around for ideas. It turns out there are a LOT of Christmas activity lists out there. And as I started reading, I remembered how goddamn oppressive it can be to be in a family where there are two conflicting sets of Christmas traditions, and you somehow have to do everything to make everyone feel like it’s Christmas. And suddenly I realized how good we had it. Since I’m the only one of the two of us that cares about Christmas, we’re free to do the things that I like, and ditch the rest. Since David is the only person who grew up celebrating Hanukkah, we’re able to do everything he loves and ignore everything else.

Because we’re figuring out our family holidays from the ground up, every single year, we’re able to have a kind of total holiday flexibility that’s really rare. If our kid is excited about it, we’ll jump on the bandwagon. If we want to try something new, we give it a shot. One year, British pub dinner… the next year that traditional Jewish Christmas Chinese feast, another year Christmas in New Orleans (maybe!). If it sounds fun, we give it a try, and then we try something different next year.

Finally, after ten years, I’ve realized I’m happy to be in a family where holiday traditions never quite stick, and are always a mish-mash of things one or more of us likes. It may not be how most families celebrate the holidays, but I’ve decided that I’m damn happy it’s how ours does.

For those of you who are in interfaith or intercultural families, what are you doing that’s working (and not working)? For those of you who are simply trying to merge two sets of holiday traditions, what are your problems (and solutions)?

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