Bridging the Holidays: How Five Interfaith Couples Blend Love and Traditions

Dara T. Allen

Stop by Patrick and Alison’s Milton home this December, and you’ll see it decked out for the holidays.

Two holidays, actually.

You’ll see an Elf on the Shelf and a Mensch on a Bench. You’ll find a Christmas tree topped with a Star of David in the cozy glow of Christmas lights and Hanukkah candles.

Alison is Jewish and Patrick is Catholic. Both rooted deeply in their faiths, the couple did not want to convert to each others’ religion, so before tying the knot they had many discussions about what it would mean to have an interfaith marriage.

“This included knowing that we wanted to have children, and wanted those children to have both faiths as part of their upbringing,” said Alison. They have incorporated both of their religious traditions – the cultural and the more formal – into their sons’ lives.

“This was best evident in the combined Baby Naming and Baptism we had for each of our sons where we celebrated the religious rites with both a priest and rabbi,” said Alison.

Patrick and Alison are among a growing number of couples in interfaith marriages, who are raising their children with to practice traditions of more than one religion.

According to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, a comparison of recent and older marriages shows that having a spouse of the same religion may be less important to many Americans today than it was decades ago. Their study found that almost 4 in 10 Americans who have married since 2010 have a spouse who is in a different religious group. By contrast, only 19% of those who wed before 1960 reported being married to someone of a different religion.

There can be many benefits for interfaith couples to teach children both religions. In an article “The Case for Raising Your Child With Two Religions,” Susan Katz Miller, who authored a book on the subject, says that “being both is not simply a compromise or negotiated settlement, but a positive, inspirational choice.” She points out that celebrating two faiths promotes transparency about differences, encourages family unity, gives extended family equal weight, and provides literacy in more than one religion.

Still, there can be challenges.

“We feel that one of the most important parts of religion is feeling the sense of community with others,” said Alison. “We are still trying to find a single interfaith community where our children can grow, learn and strengthen their faith with other children who are interfaith.”

Here’s how some other couples are navigating raising their children in two faiths, and how they’re celebrating their spirituality by blending tradition with their own unique twists this holiday season and beyond.

Dan and Clara - Somerset, MA

Clara remembers hearing the doorbell ring and experiencing a rush of panic. As her husband headed to the front door to welcome his mother for a visit, she sprinted into the family room, grabbed a framed photo off the wall and shoved it under the couch.

Flash forward 25 years and Clara explains, “The photo was of my daughter, Jeanette dressed up for her first Communion. My mother-in-law, who lived out of state, was unaware that we were bringing up our daughter Catholic like me, and Jewish like her dad. Can you imagine if she saw the picture?”

Clara knew from the beginning that her in-laws were not initially thrilled that their only Jewish son was marrying the Catholic girl that he had met at work.

“The decision to withhold [bringing our daughter up in both faiths] from my parents, my mom especially, was based on the fact that they would not have seen this choice, our choice, as a viable option for their grandchildren. We wanted Jeanette (and our sons) to know and embrace both of our faiths,” said Dan. “Our children celebrate all of the holidays such as Christmas, Yom Kippur, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and more. And yes, we have a Christmas tree and stockings and light a Menorah. And why not? Our children have a richer sense of empathy and understanding today, and we’ve shared valuable family in both the church and the temple.”

Sarah and Tim - Grafton, MA

Like Clara and Dan, Sarah and her husband were also influenced by family while pondering the religious path of their son, Riley, now 11 years old.

“I was baptized Episcopalian and had no intention of converting and my husband is Catholic. My mother-in-law was adamant about Riley becoming Catholic. So, we chose both. The religions share the majority of celebrations and we rotate churches weekly, unless there is a special event at a one that we want to attend. We feel warmly accepted by both congregations.”

Sarah explains that even though her husband is Catholic, she is usually the one to accompany Riley to church each week. “I really don’t mind. I’ll admit that I have learned a lot. For me, the biggest difference was in communion. In my church, anyone can receive communion at any time and the Eucharist is more symbolic, while in the Catholic Church, it is considered the actual body and blood of Christ.”

Anna and Adrian - Brooklyn, NY

Anna and Adrian’s home is permeated with love and warmth, food, and celebrations. Anna was raised Jewish and her husband, from Puebla, Mexico, is Catholic. The decision to celebrate in both traditions was an easy one.

“The Jews and the Mexicans are pretty much the same people. We love family and we eat all the time,” said Anna.

The couple, along with their children, Helen, age 3, and Alma, age 1, celebrate all of the Jewish, American, Catholic and Mexican holidays. “We do Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hanukkah and Passover with my mother,” she said. “Although Adrian is confused about some of the Jewish traditions during Hanukkah, he loves when I make latkes, or as he likes to call them, ‘chachalakas.’ This year we will do a Mexican version with guacamole instead of applesauce. Yum!”

The family attends synagogue and both daughters were named in Hebrew at their local synagogue. They also celebrate Día de los Muertos, Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe (December 12) Christmas, Día de Reyes and Semana Santa with Adrian’s family.

For Día de los Muertos, the family decorates their house and brings food to the cemetery. Sometimes, things get a little intertwined.

“Now, this is kind of hilarious because we are usually in New York for Día de los Muertos. We bring pastrami on rye and a Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda to the cemetery in Paramus, New Jersey, where my father is buried. It’s pretty amazing. Anyone around is usually like ‘is that pastrami?’” laughed Anna.

“We decided to respect each other’s faiths and teach our children that faith and spirituality is stronger than religion,” Anna continued. “Although religion is important, tradition is what we want to teach our children, and a faith in a higher power. Guadalupe is a strong female figure, important when raising girls or boys. HaShem and Jesus are a great presence in our home. Both of their teachings are about doing good in the world.”

Marcy and Jim - Manomet, MA

Marcy and Jim met at a pier in Plymouth and found that they were very much alike. This surprised her because she says that they come from “two separate worlds.” Marcy was raised Wiccan by her mother and is the head of a small coven. She practices a Nordic style of Wiccan, and Jim was raised Greek Orthodox.

Together, they celebrated Halloween by trick-or-treating, although her mother-in-law is very much against it, and later they celebrated Samhain with a bonfire, late night party and a casting for fall.

This December they will celebrate Christmas and Yule, which falls the day before. “For Yule, we give back to the earth. We will hang pine cones with honey and peanut butter and will offer birdseed and fruit slices,” said Marcy.

The couple have discussed their future children and both agree on bringing them up with both religions. While Marcy had once been reluctant to share her religion with former boyfriends who incorrectly liken the Wiccan religion to an episode of Netflix’s “Sabrina,” she found a safe haven with Jim.

Marcy says it would be wonderful to celebrate her favorite holiday, Samhain with her future children. She would love to carve jack-o-lanterns, paint their faces, dress up in costumes and cast their first circles. But, she is very determined to let her children be in charge of their own religious destinies.

Marcy and Jim will give their children the gift of choice. “Whatever religion my children decide upon, we will support them one hundred percent. The could be Wiccan,