Mix Up the Holidays: Tips for Interfaith Celebrations

It’s called the “December dilemma.” Here, how to mix different family and cultural traditions around the holidays.

Interfaith families and newly blended step-families often find themselves tiptoeing around family events, or having to manage hurt feelings.

“At the beginning I think we just thought we would celebrate everything,” says Danielle Spears, 47, of Scarborough, Ontario, who is Catholic. Her first husband, who died in 1993 after a battle with cancer, was also Catholic, and they had two children, now 22 and 18. Her second husband, Jonathan, 51, is Jewish and has a daughter, Rachel, 30 from his previous marriage. “I didn’t realize that something like having a nativity scene set up could be taken as offensive, especially if we had a menorah too.”

But as Danielle soon discovered, holiday and religious traditions can become a battleground. “Jonathan and I had a few things to work out together, sure, and with my kids. But we muddled through. Jonathan’s daughter, though, wasn’t comfortable with our marriage in the first place… that first Christmas, it seemed like everything in our home was offensive to her… Even the cookies I brought her, which were actually a Jewish recipe. But I had put them in a green box.”

Even families who come from similar religious backgrounds but from different cultures may find tension rising. Is a Reveillon during Christmas Eve a glorious family tradition – or unnecessarily disruptive to sleep patterns? When should the turkey be ready? And is Santa Claus a great idea – or an annoying falsehood that a consumer society perpetuates through its children?

Click through below for some tips to manage the season.

Decide what’s important to you.

For some people, the religious aspects of a holiday are the most important. For others, having family and friends surround them is more important. In an ideal world, you might have both – but in this one you may have to choose. It will be easier if you think through your bottom line in advance.

If having people stay in your home but not attend midnight services would bother you, for example, you might not want to have your Wiccan granddaughter stay over Christmas Eve. Instead you might have her over for a Boxing Day brunch.

This works well for different traditions as well. If the turkey and stuffing are what make or break the Christmas dinner for you, say so – but perhaps let other people provide dessert.

Consider a potluck approach.

Although it didn’t work for Danielle’s family, many families approach the holidays as if it’s a potluck dinner – another tradition just adds to the season. “My partner’s family is Danish, so they have a rich Christmas Eve dinner tradition with all kinds of little rituals. We go to their house for the evening,” says Heather, 34. “At first I found it tiring to stay up that night before the big Christmas dinner but now I enjoy it and the kids find it magical.”

But this approach isn’t for everyone. Sometimes individuals can find being asked to participate in celebrations disrespectful. And if there are underlying tensions, holding an extra dinner or bringing different foods can become tense rather than joyful.

Ask openly – and early.

This is particularly important when dealing with extended family. There is a tendency to assume that what’s important to us is important to others – but that’s not always the case. Bring up the subject of the holidays early, when it’s less likely that emotions will be running high, and there’s time to choreograph events before a slew of invitations arrive.

For interfaith families, this is especially important. Ask how others would like to celebrate; what they think is comfortable and what is not. For example, individuals may be just fine with attending a holiday dinner, but not all right with singing religion-based carols, or they may be fine with both but want to include something from their own tradition. And asking the question shows a respect for others’ beliefs and traditions.

Focus on common themes.

Most religions celebrate some element of peace and reconciliation. If everyone focuses on the similarities families may find there is much more to do together than it seems in just considering the trappings of the traditions.

Look for traditions you can agree on. Although it didn’t work for Danielle’s family, something fairly universal like preparing cookies together can become a lasting tradition. Even if your kids have decided to opt out of Santa Claus for your grandkids, they might appreciate a reading of The Night Before Christmas.

Other options that families have found both uniting and meaningful: spending time appreciating nature, or giving back to the community through volunteering together.

Move your central celebration. And if tensions can’t be resolved, consider finding other traditions to celebrate together instead. That’s what’s ultimately worked for Danielle and her family. “We have a big Labour Day picnic and that’s when we bring the whole family together. It’s turned out to be more relaxing in the long run.”