Mixing, Merging, Or Something Else? Creating Traditions In Interfaith Relationships

In December alone, there are countless religious holidays – Christmas and Hanukkah, but also Bodhi Day, Kwanzaa, and many Saints Days. In some years there are also other holidays in December that vary with the lunar calendar. Unfortunately, in the United States there is a tendency to focus on only one or two of them – a tendency that can be especially stressful for interfaith couples and families. Not only do these families have to grapple with the popular imposition of Christianity, but find a way to balance and respect each other’s unique traditions. 

Of course, interfaith couples do this hard work year round, and as a group their numbers are growing. According to the Pew Research Center, interfaith couples account for nearly 40% of marriages since 2010, compared to just 19% of those married before 1960. And while we tend to be swept up in winter holidays, religious observance is an ongoing activity. Building a relationship through or despite those differences, then, demands strong communication skills and a clear sense of family values, as several couples we spoke to described.

Two Backgrounds, One Religion

In speaking with two couples with very different religious observances, one thing they both described was the effort that goes into building and maintaining traditions. In Melissa and William’s household, for example, the couple and their three children all actively observe Jewish holidays and traditions, despite the fact that William was raised outside of religious traditions. Indeed, Melissa describes him as “extremely committed to having a Jewish home and raising Jewish children” and notes that he’s independently and actively involved in their temple’s community. 

While William has learned a great deal about Jewish traditions, from the traditional prayers to the adoption of the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam, which means “repair the world,” Melissa is equally committed to ensuring that their children have a deep connection to their father’s Korean heritage. In particular, the family celebrates the traditional Korean first birthday ceremony, known as Doljanchi; William has even spoken to the family’s temple community about the tradition.

Different Religions, Universal Principles

While Melissa and William ultimately practice one set of religious traditions alongside the broader cultural practices of another country, in Dave and Maya’s household, there’s significant engagement with both of their religious backgrounds – Dave was raised Catholic, though is less observant than his family, while Maya is Hindu and immigrated to the US from a majority Hindu country. While Maya describes her family as celebrating religious traditions somewhat separately, she also notes that as a family they “sing songs about Hindu gods, Christian hymns and carols, read and tell stories that belong in both faith traditions,” and that they talk a lot about “universal values” like equality, empathy, and truthfulness. 

Unlike Melissa and William, Maya says that it’s important that her husband is respectful of her traditions, but not that he participate in them. What’s most important is that Maya and Dave have successfully modeled what it looks like to talk about their differences. Maya says of their children that “being intimately exposed to two faiths instead of one seems to engender more thought and dialog earlier on. Consequently, my kids are more thoughtful than I ever was at their age about faith, religion, and differences.” 

Interfaith Households – The Big Picture

Though their traditions are different, both Melissa and William and Maya and Dave’s households are like many dual religion households in the United States, specifically Christian-Jewish. In these households, says the religious scholar Samira Mehta, there is often a strong division between religious holidays. 

The manifestation of religious division do, of course, vary across households; researchers note that after many years in which interfaith Jewish-Christian families staunchly refused Christmas trees to protect their Jewish culture, more recently they’ve seen that the children of these couples are skilled at recognizing how they can practice one religion while helping family of another faith celebrate their holiday traditions – such as by coming to Christmas celebrations and exchanging gifts with those relatives. Indeed, Melissa and William’s family does exchange Christmas gifts with William’s relatives, but they don’t have a Christmas tree in their home. Meanwhile, for Maya and Dave, Hindu and Catholic calendars so infrequently overlap in important ways that they’re able to prioritize holidays as they come and, as a result, prioritize being with the relatives who celebrate those holidays.

One of the things we value about our community at Emi is just how different everyone is and how much we can learn from each other. So however you’re spending these icy (or, where you are, maybe not so icy!) days, may you see out 2019 in good spirits, surrounded by the people you care about.