How interfaith families celebrate the season

  • Leora Hatchwell is the president of the board of the Kol Hadash Humanistic congregation in Lincolnshire. Her husband, Jim McCune, was raised Christian. Daughter Callie McCune splits the difference by throwing a themed "Christmukkah" party.

      Leora Hatchwell is the president of the board of the Kol Hadash Humanistic congregation in Lincolnshire. Her husband, Jim McCune, was raised Christian. Daughter Callie McCune splits the difference by throwing a themed "Christmukkah" party. Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Published12/23/2009 11:16 AM

Should we light the Hanukkah candles or the Christmas tree? Cook potato latkes or candied yams? Buy our kids gifts for one holiday or both?

These are the questions many suburban interfaith families have to answer every December, when Christmas and Hanukkah are just weeks apart.


While single-faith families may complain of long lines at the mall and trips to the in-laws, interfaith families often have double the aggravation in their attempts to honor both Jewish and Christian traditions at almost the same time.

Despite the challenges, these families and the religious leaders who counsel them say the holidays can be a rich, rewarding time and an important learning experience for children.

One suburban Jewish congregation, the Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Lincolnshire, serves a number of interfaith families who get support from other couples, congregation leaders and yearly workshops on interfaith marriages.

Rabbi Adam Chalom, who joined Kol Hadash in 2004, estimates 20 to 25 percent of his congregation is interfaith. Chalom says Kol Hadash helps interfaith families celebrate Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays while encouraging them to celebrate holidays from other traditions in their homes.

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"For a lot of people, their religious identity is really a cultural identity," Chalom said. "When it comes to holiday time, Christians want a cultural Christmas with the elves and the Christmas tree, and Jews want the potato pancakes and menorahs."

Families Chalom counsels usually take one of two approaches to the holidays: they either combine both traditions, for example by putting dreidels on the Christmas tree or lighting a menorah on Christmas; or they celebrate the two holidays separately.

For more than 20 years, Kol Hadash Chairman Leora Hatchwell has had to make those decisions with her husband, Tom McCune, who was raised Presbyterian.

"Many of our couples are interfaith," Hatchwell said. "We've all struggled with the same things: how do you honor what you believe and respect and what your spouse believes?"

Every December, the McCune-Hatchwell family lights Hanukkah candles and decorates a Christmas tree in their Buffalo Grove home. For the past six years, their daughter, Callie, has thrown a themed "Christmukkah" party for multicultural families. Last year, the celebration had an Italian theme.


"All the food was Italian, except for the latkes," Hatchwell noted.

Kol Hadash members Bill and Alexandra Brook celebrate both Bill's Jewish heritage and Alexandra's Serbian Orthodox upbringing.

"It was very important for both of us to celebrate and expose our kids to those traditions," Alexandra said.

The Glenview couple doesn't have quite the scheduling conflicts that some other interfaith families have because the Serbian Orthodox Church marks Christmas on Jan. 7, which in some years is a full month after Hanukkah.

Like many other interfaith families, the Brooks light a menorah and put up a Christmas tree in December. "On Serbian holidays, we all get together and talk about what those holidays mean," Alexandra said.

Interfaith marriages are not without their road bumps. Some couples, Chalom says, initially agree to honor each other's traditions, then get cold feet when the time actually comes for important religious ceremonies like Baptism or the bris.

"The other partner is surprised by this change," Chalom says. "They were trying to be nice initially but didn't explore how attached they were emotionally to certain traditions."

The Brookses dealt with this issue when it came time to baptize their children. Having been reared in a religious, Serbian Orthodox immigrant family, Alexandra considers Baptism an important part of her culture. Alexandra says her husband, Bill, who comes from a less observant Jewish household, did not have a problem with baptizing their children before they were born.

"We talked about it in the abstract before we had kids," Alexandra said. "When our second was born, a son, that was harder for my husband to take. Seeing his son baptized was difficult."

Hatchwell says interfaith marriages can be most difficult for the children, who struggle to define themselves while facing derision from peers who come from one religion homes.

"The most difficult part for my child was when she was in the fourth grade and kids said, 'You're not Jewish,'" Hatchwell said. "Those times, when she was challenged by her friends, were really difficult."

But interfaith families also enjoy many benefits that single-faith couples miss out on. The Kol Hadash families say the holidays can be educational not only for the children, but for the parents, too.

"I love learning about all the similarities between the Serbian people and the Jewish people," Brook said. "The more you learn, the more you realize that, yes, the religions are different, but there's so many more similarities than there are differences."

The most rewarding moment for Hatchwell was when her daughter, while preparing for confirmation, a ceremony in which Jewish teenagers state their beliefs, sat down at Christmas with her Christian grandparents and asked them about what they believe.

"She didn't want to just hit on the Jewish part," Hatchwell said. "She wanted to explore what her grandparents thought and take that into consideration."

She adds: "It's one of those moments where you sit back and keep your mouth shut and listen to a discussion about God. To hear that culminate at confirmation at her speech ... it was wonderful."

Of course, celebrating more than one holiday also multiplies the opportunities for gift giving. For the McCune-Hatchwell family, the holiday season is an endless procession of family, food and gifts, starting with Thanksgiving, continuing with Callie's birthday on Dec. 5 and Hanukkah before finally ending on Christmas.

After more than two decades, the Buffalo Grove family has settled into its own traditions and customs.

"We continue to celebrate it the way we always have," Hatchwell said. "And everyone seems comfortable with it."

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