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The 'December Dilemma' - Christmas tree, menorah or both?

Wednesday - 12/14/2011, 11:17am  ET

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The number of mixed faith couples is increasing. Choosing how to celebrate the holidays can be a source of contention. If you can't decide, companies now offer. (Photo courtesy Signal.com)

Meera Pal, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - A few years ago when Hanukkah fell on Christmas, Elizabeth Quinn and Mark Shmueli brought their menorah to her family's house.

At sundown, the Quinn-Shmueli family -- with their sons and nieces -- lit the menorah candles, illuminated by the lights of the Christmas tree.

"Really, our religious/spiritual lives are quite entwined and we are both comfortable in both worlds," Quinn says. "Maybe in part because we are so comfortable with where we are ourselves."

More than one in four American adults in a committed relationship comes from different religious backgrounds, according to the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In today's homes, it's not unusual to find a dreidel on the Christmas tree, or a Koran under the same roof as a crèche.

Unlike the conflicts that arise during Easter and Passover, Christmas can be a little easier for some couples, says Ian Spatz, a facilitator at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington. The group, around for almost two decades, helps children of mixed faith couples learn about both Christianity and Judaism, holiday celebrations and the idea of exploring a multi-faith identity.

At a recent Sunday gathering in Kensington, Md., Spatz led a discussion with about 80 adults entitled "Don't Light the Menorah Too Close to the Christmas Tree."

"For a lot of Christians there's not a lot of religious element (to Christmas)," he says.

His advice to couples of mixed faith, particularly around the holiday season, is to talk to one another.

"It's really about communication," Spatz says. "Expressing why something may be important for you to do or why it's not important to you."

The other key is education and understanding the symbols of the season.

"It's not just about tolerating something, it's in some ways, about embracing the other," Spatz says.

Susan Katz Miller, who is both a product of an interfaith family and an interfaith parent, says the right answer is different for every family.

"For some families, teaching both, celebrating both is going to be the right pathway," says Katz Miller, who writes about her experiences on her blog and is compiling stories for a book.

Katz Miller was raised as a Reform Jew by a Jewish father and a Protestant mother. Many years later, she married a Protestant. The couple raised their now-teenaged children in an interfaith community.

According to the Pew Center, Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated are most likely to have a spouse or partner with a different religious background. Mormons and Hindus are the least likely to marry outside their faith.

"You would think it would be easier because (Christians and Jews) share a lot of history," Katz Miller says. "They're both monotheists. In other ways, it's difficult because of that shared history. There's been a lot of conflict."

But it can be done, she says. And when it comes to celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah, she says it's important to celebrate each holiday separately.

"We're not mixing them. We're not merging them. We're trying to educate our children on what each is," Katz Miller says. "We don't put dreidels on the Christmas tree."

Susan Ryder, program coordinator for IFFP says deciding how much to celebrate the holidays in an interfaith home can be uncomfortable for Jews.

"The Jews usually are the ones with the issue," she says. "For Jews, Jesus was just not in their life."

Jill Posin from Cabin John, Md. is Jewish and her soon-to-be ex-husband is Catholic. She says the holidays were always difficult for her.

"We celebrated only Jewish holidays in our home (per our agreement before marriage, and had agreed to raise the kids Jewish)," she says. "My husband did put up a Christmas tree outside on our porch one year and it made me very uncomfortable."

"I guess I never had the Christmas spirit."

Her advice to mixed faith couples is to "discuss and agree on how you will raise the children and what you will do about the holidays."

Ryder says it can be the outward display of Christmas decorations that can make the Jewish half of the couple feel uncomfortable.

But that is dependent on how each person was raised, says Rabbi Harold White.

White says he grew up in a traditional Jewish home, but his mother always made a point to take him to see Santa Claus every year.

"I believe in Santa Claus," he says, explaining that Santa didn't worry about his appearance, gave gifts to both the rich and the poor, and never stayed around for a thank you.

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