After 17 winter holidays as a married couple, David and Cathy Krinsky of Laguna Beach know pretty much what to expect from each other in December. "It's the same mini-crisis every year," David said.
When they married, Cathy converted to Judaism. They celebrate all Jewish holidays and light menorahs throughout Hanukkah. But, pulled by her Christian heritage, she still decorates a Christmas tree in their home with six-pointed Stars of David and Santa Clauses in blue and white, Hanukkah colors. And even though David, whose father is a rabbi, agrees to it, it upsets him.
Then they discuss whether to decorate the house with lights. On this one, he wins, and she's upset.
As the number of interfaith marriages continues to grow, so apparently does the December dilemma of whether or how to mix Christmas with Hanukkah. This year, Hanukkah, an eight-day Feast of Lights celebrating religious freedom for Jews, begins Dec. 22 and will overlap with Christmas, bringing the issue even closer to home--especially for those raising children.
"It is a problem, and for some, a very serious problem," said Rabbi Allen Krause of Temple Beth El in Mission Viejo. "There is an increasing amount of intermarriage in Southern California, as in other parts of the country," he said. Teachers at the congregation's Sunday School need to be increasingly sensitive to the fact that more children are attending from interfaith families, he said.
Forty percent of American Jews marry non-Jews, less than half of whom convert, said Lydia Kukoff, director of outreach for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "We think there are between 200,000 and 250,000 interfaith marriages and between 400,000 and 600,000 children."
While no major studies have been done on the effects of dual celebrations on children, "we are now seeing adults who are the products of intermarriages who have no clear sense of their identity. If they were raised as both, they feel they are neither," Kukoff said.
Some couples, such as Jill and Steve Edwards of Laguna Beach, opted for no Christmas tree from the start. "It's hard enough to be Jewish in Orange County without having the conflict of having two religions within the same home," Jill said.
A convert to Judaism, Jill had continued to visit her parents at Christmas and take the children. But she said the children became confused by stockings filled with Christmas toys for them at their grandmother's house. Because it was too difficult for her mother to stop her traditions, the family stopped going over altogether six years ago.
Many Jews returning to their roots are also throwing out Christmas trees. Among them are children of Jewish immigrants who celebrated Christmas as a means of acculturating to the United States.
"There are fewer Jews who have Christmas trees in their houses today than a generation ago," said Rabbi Steven Einstein of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley.
Some interfaith couples have come up with innovative blends of their disparate traditions.
Diane Lichterman of Laguna Beach, for example, is a Catholic of Mexican-American descent whose husband, Marshall, was raised as a traditional Jew. "It didn't get complicated until we had kids," she said.
They decided to "hedge their bets," celebrating the holidays with both a Hanukkah party, then an ethnic Christmas fest including tamales, luminarias (outside ornaments usually illuminated by candles) and a trip to midnight Mass.
Their children, twins age 10 and a 7-year-old, are not confused, she said. "When you ask them what they are, they say 'half and half.' They're real clear on that," she said.
While non-Jews can easily participate in Hanukkah festivities, Jewish rabbis agree that Jews should respect, but not celebrate, Christmas. Despite the secular nature of the season, the essence of the holiday is Christian, said Rabbi Einstein of Congregation B'nai Tzedek. "What is it called? Wintertime? Santa Claus Day? It's still Christ's Mass. That remains the essence."
Young children can only see the obvious differences, asking "who is Hanukkah and who is Christmas? When they get older, the question is, what do you actually believe? And you cannot believe in both religions at the same time," he said.
Einstein, who has seminars for interfaith couples, said he advises them to observe only one holiday at home. "It gives children a clear sense of who they are, rather than a mixed message."
It can be easier for parents when the holidays overlap, Einstein said, because they can compare the holidays to birthdays, which children easily understand. "You say, 'It's Johnny's birthday today and he gets presents and cake. In a couple of days it will be your birthday and people will come here.' "
In years when Hanukkah comes right after Thanksgiving, Einstein added, little children have forgotten it by the time Christmas comes. "They say, 'What have you done for me lately?' "