December Dilemma: What to Celebrate? Mixed-Religion Families Juggle Their Observances


This article is reprinted with permission of the Ventura County Star. Visit

December 12, 2004. “Oy vey … it’s Christmas.”

The phrase is on a whimsical tin statue of a lady nestled in a two-room display of blue and silver Hanukkah decorations in the Agoura Hills home of Rhonda and Greg Greenstein, upstairs.

Walk downstairs and you’ll find a two-story-high Christmas tree, lights, ornaments, wooden soldiers and yards of garlands.

Greg is Jewish and Rhonda is Roman Catholic, so the Greensteins always decorate for Hanukkah and Christmas so their three kids learn to respect both faiths.

According to a 2001 population survey conducted by United Jewish Communities–the New York-based network of U.S. Jewish humanitarian agencies–47 percent of all married Jews in the United States are in interfaith marriages.

There were no statistics available on the number of interfaith families in Ventura County, but a 2000 poll taken by the American Religion Data Archive showed that 15,000 people in Ventura County are Jewish.

Jewish/Christian interfaith families such as the Greensteins have successfully navigated a seasonal situation that can cause a lot of stress.

According to an online publication called, families with Jewish and Christian spouses struggle with whether to celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or both, how much fuss to make about one or the other, which symbols to use and how to appease relatives who may feel strongly about how the kids celebrate the holidays.

To learn more about how interfaith families cope with the holiday problem, conducted a poll in October of 199 interfaith families across the U.S. Pollsters called it the December Dilemma Survey.

Edmund Case, publisher of, said the interfaith families he queried reported a lot of success with choosing one religion for the kids while honoring the other one by celebrating both on holidays.

“We think that parents should give one religious identity to a child while respecting the other religion,” Case said.

There’s an easy way to explain the dual celebration to the kids, he said.

“A lot of people say, ‘This is like going to someone else’s birthday party,'” Case said.

Leonard Felder, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and author of a book called When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People (2003, Rodale Press), recommended focusing on the Judeo-Christian values both have in common.

“Let’s say both traditions talk about bringing light out of darkness during the shortest days of the year,” Felder said.

Compassion is another fundamental value, he said, and if a rigid relative arrives on the doorstep with an agenda, you’ll need it.

“Relatives think this is their one opportunity to change and ‘fix’ people, which is a bad move,” Felder said.

After choosing your family’s religious identity, experts recommend honoring the other holiday with secular rather than religious trappings. Choose Santa Claus and latkes rather than a Nativity and Star of David.

“We hear from a lot of people, ‘What’s wrong with raising children with two religions?'” Case said. “We think it puts a child in a difficult position.”

Although his organization promotes Jewish choices, Case said he believes no choice or choosing both puts a child in a tough spot.

“In that case, we would rather they decide on the other religion rather than do both or do neither,” Case said.

Copyright 2004, Ventura County Star. All Rights Reserved.