Thoughts on Married Christmas

Kelly Benvenuto

I‘ve always loved Christmas. Adored it. But aside from my ability to squeak out the descant to “O Come All Ye Faithful” and my memorable portrayal of the Virgin Mary in the preschool nativity play in 1987, I’ve loved it in a mostly secular way. When I was little, Christmas Eve meant letters to Santa and early to bed, pyjama-clad bodies wriggly with anticipation. My brother and I would race downstairs in the morning to see if Santa had been. Had Rudolph eaten the carrot we left for him? Had Santa finished the glass of dry white wine that my mother assured me was his drink of choice?

As a university student, home for the holidays with scandalous stories and a term’s worth of laundry, Christmas Eve became a chance to catch up with old friends. Bundle up warm and off to the pub, and rounds of hugs at midnight as cries of “Merry Christmas!” rang through the winter air.

I suppose you could say that, growing up in my family, Christmas was always about simple pleasures. The joy of giving presents, and the thrill of receiving them. Our small family sprawled across couches, filled to the brim with food and warmth and quiet contentment. The only hint at a deeper meaning came from the angel candles, tinkling softly on the mantelpiece as we grappled over the last piece of chocolate orange.

And then I married a Christian.

For Fin, my husband, Santa isn’t the only dude running around with a beard at Christmas, and the nativity isn’t just an opportunity to show off your acting skills to a bunch of four-year-olds. Advent is one of the most sacred times of the year. As someone for whom twinkly lights and sparkly shoes are as much a part of the festive season as angels and immaculate conception, I viewed Christmas with his family as a daunting undertaking. Those cosy Christmases of my childhood seemed suddenly less worthy, less “proper,” through the prism of their piety. Should I even be celebrating it at all?

This is the moment I am reminded once again that our wedding really did help shape our marriage, and every day our marriage is shaping our life together. Those worries I had about our religious wedding ceremony, the fear that I would feel like a stranger at my own wedding? Came to nothing. The ceremony was by far my greatest delight on that altogether delightful day. My certainty that I would be out of place at a religious celebration of Christmas, the lone heathen mumbling along to the prayers and wishing she was watching the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special instead? Well, it turns out that my experiences of Christmases past stood me in good stead in swapping the pub for the church on Christmas Eve: the squeaky descants; the midnight hugging; bestowing good wishes on friends and strangers. There’s even mulled wine in the church hall. Now, every year I find myself actively looking forward to that moment of peace and reflection in all the frolic and frenzy of December.

As our third married Christmas rolls around, it’s becoming clearer to me how our marriage has changed us both, in big ways and little ones. Without pretending to share or even fully understand his faith, I nevertheless find myself striving to live up to the values he holds so dear (one of my favourite traditions of our baby family is our annual day of volunteering to distribute Christmas trees to raise funds for a local Christian homeless charity). I see how his faith lights him up, and by opening up my mind to beliefs different from my own, I like to think I let a little bit of that light into me.

It’s not all a one-way street, though. For years, the reality of Christmas Day for Fin was a dutiful drive across the country to spend all day in an overheated room with aging relatives and small furry animals to which he was quite seriously allergic (to the cats I mean, not the relatives). Despite the best of intentions, the day was often fraught and busy and, dare I say, a bit dull? Now, heading down to visit my family is one of his favourite parts of the whole shebang. If he’s brought me peace, I’ve brought him fun and chocolate and Santa and sparkles and a whole other family’s worth of presents. I think I let a little bit of light into him, too.

Photo by: Kelly Benvenuto Photography

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  • Delightfully wise!

  • Lauren

    Thank you for this! I am marrying an atheist – straight-up, no God – and I am Christian. It makes me happy when other couples working it out too. And thank you for ideas on how to blend traditions; I’m now off to read your wedding post…

  • Kess

    I grew up quite Christian (my mother was the music director, so I was at church a good 3 or 4 days a week) but am now pretty firmly in the agnostic group.

    However, there are no ill feelings towards religion at all in me. I really, really recognize the importance of the community and the good things that all religions can do.

    In that vein, I love the Christian Christmas traditions because I see them more in a social context than spiritual. The increased help for the needy around Christmas, the reaching out to those who are lonely, the repeating of old stories and traditions to help create community, the songs and art that are created for the holiday.

    Religion can be a powerful social force and I find it fascinating. This is mainly what runs though my head when I return home for all the Christmas services and preparation.

    My SO and I have both been active participants in religion and have not. Who knows what we’ll think in 20 years. But I think that this respect is in both of us, so no matter what happens, it will be a good thing in the end.

    • Lynn

      My husband is deeply religious. His faith is integral to his being, and it is the same with his family. I, however, do not believe. I come from a long line of believers (grandfather was one of the founding members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), and I’ve been baptized a few times. But I don’t believe.

      When my husband or his family ask me to go to church, I go. I actually like church. I like the rhythms and the traditions and the connection of it. I like the hymns. I like the symbolism. I just can’t believe.

      My husband accepts that, although his great hope is that through witnessing his faith and the faith of his family, I’ll come to believe. No pressure at all…just a quiet belief in his own faith.

  • Wow Kirsty, you write in such a beautiful eloquent manner.
    Yes, to all of it. To blending traditions, to getting to know more about each other. To bringing light into each other’s perceptions.

  • CJ

    Wow, I’m really impressed/touched by the humility with which you approach the issue. I’m also in an inter-faith marriage and I think the toughest but also most rewarding this is to really approach issues of faith or not-faith with an attitude of “what can i learn from my partner?” and “what is good and beautiful about this belief/attitude/tradition?”

  • Frances

    Oh Kirsty.

    I’ve just had a big cry at my desk to this. How lovely.

    I’m spending Christmas with my husband’s family for the first time this year and now instead of dreading the lack of my family’s traditions (and presence) I’m feeling more positive that I’ll just enjoy a whole different Christmas.

  • Peridot

    Love this!

    I’m firmly in the secular Christmas camp but I think your blended Christmas is lovely. It’s so personal and unique – who wants an identikit Christmas? Apart from eating chocolate for breakfast, obv. Some things are sacrosanct.

    Despite my utter lack of faith I sing in a choir and love the Christmas concert the best because the music is so lovely and it’s part of the exciting build up. To me it’s a festival that has tipped back to the original pre-Christian festival that was just something designed to have something to look forward to in the long, cold, dark days of winter. But it means different things to different people – and especially to Christians it has a whole different dimension. There’s room for us all – we all love mince pies, mulled wine, sparkly lights and chocolate coins after all!

    • Adrini

      It’s a whole world to others to, but no one thinks about it. Everyone just goes bible crazy.

      I’m a long time pagan, for instance, as well as a UU. As a Pagan the winter solstice is about the Gods’ promise that the cold and the winter will end, that crops will grow and life return, and a reminder that no matter how dark it can get I am not alone in this life. This was what was celebrated for 2, maybe 3 thousand years. All but forgotten now. Just ignored.

      As a humanist UU it is about all the traditions. The ones from grandparents and passed relatives long lost but always remembered. Dishes for the memory of people who can’t be there for whatever reason. Hanging up ornaments and remembering when we got each one. Being grateful for all the good and light in our lives. Then turning off the lights and just looking at and meditating on the tree and thinking about what it holds. No less sacred or loved. Just does not get the press.

      • Raised Roman Catholic with a very strong understanding that the Christmas traditions we know and love are really a blend of Pagan and Christian traditions, I always thought the idea that its a promise the sun and light will return is the reason the church put Christmas in December. (I kind of think it may have been a way of evangelizing, like “Hey, you know what you’re celebrating right now? That’s what this is about!” connecting the new faith with the familiar one).

        It is very weird to see the different ways people celebrate- as I said, I was raised Catholic, in the US, and my husband’s family are Catholics in Ireland. Simple things like all the hymns being different get to me (the fact that almost nobody sings along during Mass does too- it’s often the choir, my mother in law and me, and I don’t really know the words!)

        We hosted American Thanksgiving this year, in England, and I had to explain the holiday to our guests; it made me pick the bits that “make” the day what it is for me, like pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes, and the day-long ritual that goes into making mashed potatoes and mashed turnips for upwards of 30 people. No less sacred, indeed.

  • Adrini

    I’m glad it’s working out so well for you! My family has never been able to make it work. A few members of my family are hard core and it just makes the day unpleasant for the rest of us, one even forces bible readings (with turns!) for the family including the wiccan, pagan and UU. Sees no problem with this, and won’t give back, a sit were.

    Hubby and I are fine. He gets a little tired of x-mas by the day, as it starts around halloween around here. But so long as I don’t over do it we have a great time. If I could only get family members to either tone it down or give and take we’d be golden.

  • natalie

    I loved reading this. Thank you!

    My husband and I were both raised Catholic, and so we had a Catholic wedding ceremony this past June. This will be our first Christmas as a married couple. I was NOT into the idea of a religious ceremony at first, but my husband’s enthusiasm for the religious rituals of our marriage were inspiring. He is more religious than I am, and I thought for sure I would resent him for years after our wedding for being so *darn* earnest about Catholicism.

    His faith has had a positive impact on me, contrary to what I believed at first. He has inspired me to spend time giving to others and volunteering instead of trolling the mall for last-minute sales or spending hours online shopping for holiday party outfits for myself. To him, Christmas is about giving to the less fortunate—something that has magnified my spiritual beliefs. (You can give without being religious—that’s my disclaimer!!)

    I spent years dreading the holidays with my own dysfunctional extended family; we didn’t have to travel far to see them, but the emotionally draining aspects of it always left a bad taste in my mouth. Now I can look forward to my own traditions with my new family, and even better, we can create new traditions together and choose who we want to spend the holidays with. After all, Christmas IS just another day, but why would you spend ANY day with people you don’t like or respect? I am excited to create my own traditions with my mini-family and, although it’s bittersweet this year especially, I look forward to moving away from my family of origin (from an emotional and mental standpoint.)

  • Christmas for my family revolves around watching the Fridge Day episode of Dinosaurs. My sister reads the Night Before Christmas from our stockings. My husband’s family goes to church, eats prawn cocktail, and then make a breakfast casserole for the next morning.

    The holidays we spend with my in laws, I go to church. I sit there and silently resent the pastor for his undisguised dislike and disrespect of non-Christians (which, hi). I sit in the back and watch other people receive communion. I sing the songs and gleefully recite the Lord’s Prayer because I Know That One.

    But I have started to seek out my own spirituality around the holidays. I began attending Solstice Services at my own church, which has brought a deeper meaning to the holidays for me. If I consider Christmas as solely about Santa or Jesus, I struggle. But when I think of Christmas and the other holidays at this time as part of a greater festival of lights, as part of a universal human experience – that when the days get short and the nights are long, we need the light, we need the cheer, and we need those feelings of peace and joy more than ever – and we yearn for renewal and growth that comes with each passing year. Allowing myself this ceremony and these reflections each year allows me to then sit in the pew at my in-laws church and try to embrace the fact that we are all reaching for some kind of deeper peace and joy this time of year.

    • Cleo

      “But when I think of Christmas and the other holidays at this time as part of a greater festival of lights, as part of a universal human experience – that when the days get short and the nights are long, we need the light, we need the cheer, and we need those feelings of peace and joy more than ever – and we yearn for renewal and growth that comes with each passing year.”

      That part of what you wrote gave me goosebumps. What a beautiful sentiment. :)

    • Natalie

      Your last paragraph is seriously beautiful. Both writing and sentiment.

  • KB

    Totally get this – sometimes it’s not so much a compromise, but a blending of values, kind of like when you put a red towel and a blue towel in the washer together :-) They rub off on each other.

    It’s also so weird when you think of the idea that you’re going to be celebrating a holiday that is AND isn’t your’s because there are so many variations, it makes you miss “your” Christmas. Although, also not limited to Christmas either – one of my Jewish friends is also dating someone who’s also Jewish and last year, he went to her house for the holidays and found out that they do the “Hannukah Bush” thing. It kind of offended him until he realized that that’s just what they do. Some families are really religious and others just like the dreidels/cookies/presents, but a lot of people are all over the spectrum when it comes to the holidays.

  • This is lovely :) I’m hoping that we’ll find such a balance as we start sharing holidays. It’s still kind of new, and still a little, um, creaky maybe?

  • Sarah

    Love this post, and its reflection on how sharing a life with someone can teach you new ways to look at and delight in a holiday you’ve always known.

    It’s especially interesting to me that two people who have grown up celebrating Christmas can celebrate and enjoy it in such different (and complementary) ways. I’m Christian and find the Advent season and Christmas both joyful and deeply meaningful in my faith life. My new husband is Jewish. When we moved in together a few years ago, we began to celebrate holidays from both our traditions together. And you know what? I really enjoy celebrating Hanukkah. I love the juxtaposition of light from our Advent wreath and our menorah, and I love the slow intentionality of our evenings as we eat and drink wine and have conversation and retell the story of Hanukkah and watch the menorah candles burn down. It’s important to me to share in something that’s a part of his past and something so rooted in his identity. And he enjoys celebrating Christmas with me. It’s powerful to be able to share in your beloved’s traditions and in so doing, find delight and grow closer to that person.

  • This will be our fourth Christmas together and our second with just the two of us. And I’m excited. I love not only what we’ve melded together from our families of origin, but I’m super excited about the things we’ve invented on our own, some of them accidentally.

    The holidays definitely point out how your baby family is growing.

  • Elaine

    I have nothing poignant to say, but am also in an interfaith marriage, and I love how this post captures both the conflict and the joy that an interfaith marriage can bring. Thanks for a great read!

  • This is an awesome post! I love how you found traditions you could love/relate to within Christianity…I think doing that whenever there’s a difference in culture (whether it’s spiritual, political, etc.) is so hard to remember to do but so valuable and makes blending different cultures way more doable.

  • Laura

    Thank you for this. It was surprisingly important for me to read about how secular Christmas celebrations are meaningful, too. I really relate to wondering if my Christmas is less “worthy.” In the US, in the South at least, we’re reminded each year how “everyone (retail stores, mainly) is taking the Christ out of Christmas.” While I appreciate that they want the season to have more depth than just presents, I can’t help but be sad that these people probably think of my secular Christmas as thoughtless. Sure, I’m adapting the holiday a bit to fit my beliefs, don’t all cultures do that?

    Aside from celebrating the birth of Christ, I feel all the other teachings apply to me, too. I am shown how important community is to us all. I am honored to give back to those less fortunate. I am conscious to show that I value others and am grateful when others say they appriecate me. I am lucky to have extra quality time to spend with my loved ones. And like Christians, I enjoy the gifts and decorations, but as details on a bigger picture. Our lives move fast. For me Christmas slows everything down.

    And I when remind myself of these wonderful traditions, values and experiences that the holiday gives me, I know that my Christmas is most definitely worthy.

  • Emily

    For the record, squeaking the descant of “oh come all he faithful” at midnight mass (usually half-drunk on wine and tired as all get-out by that point) is one of my favorite Christmas traditions!

  • Mrs May

    I appreciated this a lot (and all this holiday talk in general). You know what, I don’t come from a religious family- but unlike the writer- I have always hated Christmas. I can’t help it. I just do. It was awesome when I realized that I don’t have to attend. This year I agreed to attend my spouses’ family traditions. And I am dreading it, which I feel terrible about! This post made me realize: it’s me. It’s not her fault. No one can fix this issue I have.
    I’m just gonna try to buck up, try to like it, and if I don’t, forgive myself and not be mean. And let myself take next year off. Maybe it won’t be completely horrible, who knows.

  • Secular Christmas camp here. I like it to be full of meaning and coziness but no religion. I grew up not celebrating holidays{but religious} and the hubs grew up real religious but celebrating holidays. we talk religion and have went to church but it’s not our thing. we are creating our own thing and it is interesting. glad to know that we are not alone.