Beyond Santa: How Interfaith Families Share Holiday Traditions

See how four families blend their cultural and religious backgrounds into the holidays.

By: Michele C Hollow

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Claire Warden listens closely when her husband, Alex Fletcher, recites the blessing over the Hanukkah candles. Claire, who grew up in a small English town, remembers saying prayers and singing hymns in school.

“When I was young, I decided I did believe in God because most of my friends did,” says Claire, who works as an actress. “Then about age 10 or 11, I started thinking it through, and I didn’t believe it anymore. Alex went to Hebrew school, and his parents are pretty orthodox. When I met them, it was important for me to respect their religion and their culture. I worked very hard to learn about their religion and backgrounds. When we had our wedding, I wanted to learn the words of the Hora (a Jewish folk dance often played at weddings). I spent days and days learning it.”

Their New York home is decorated with a Christmas tree, a menorah and blue and silver holiday lights. They play dreidel, make latkes and light the menorah. Each Christmas they return to the U.K. to celebrate with Claire’s family. When Hanukkah and Christmas occur at the same time, Alex brings his menorah, and Hanukkah becomes a part of their Christmas tradition. “Alex, who works as a scientist, has a strong link to his culture,” says Claire. “It is part of him, and that makes him special. He also has great respect for my beliefs.”

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Melanie Grizzel

Melanie Grizzel

According to a study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 27 percent of U.S. couples are married to someone from a different religious background. That number increases by 10 percent for marriages between people of different Protestant denominations, such as a Baptist married to a Lutheran.

Jessica and Tony Bruno (she is Protestant and he is Catholic) see the holidays as a perfect time to honor each other’s traditions. One of Jessica’s favorite holiday customs is leaving milk and cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve and spreading food outside of her New England home for the reindeer. Her husband, Tony, who comes from a large Italian family, celebrated Christmas on December 25 with a big fish dinner made by his mom.

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A few years ago Tony’s mom died, and now it is Jessica who prepares the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas day. Jessica, who writes the blog Four Generations One Roof, expects between 25 and 30 relatives at her house on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Her mother makes the turkey with all the trimmings and they end the meal with a number of desserts including their family’s traditional English pudding made by her grandmother.

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Jessica Bruno Picasa

Picasa, Jessica Bruno

“Christmas Eve starts around 3 p.m. at our house,” says Jessica. “My husband and I read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas to the kids. My mom makes all the traditional English foods: turkey, stuffing with cranberries, puddings, homemade breads with marmalade, sprouts and other veggies, potatoes and gravy. The children get the best of our combined traditions.” “My husband didn’t grow up with leaving cookies for Santa and spreading reindeer food on the front lawn. He loves doing that with our son.”

Mixing religious and cultural differences is not new to Andrew Schrage, who grew up with a Jewish father and Catholic Chinese mother. “We celebrate Hanukkah and Chinese New Year.” His partner, Carly Stewart, was raised Catholic by two Caucasian parents. Christmas at Carly’s parents’ home is a big celebration. “My family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but it is a major event for Carly and her family,” says Andrew, “Christmas day is spent with Carly’s family, and she participates in my Chinese and Jewish celebrations as well, which occur at my parents’ home. When my family celebrates Hanukkah, we light the menorah, but don’t exchange gifts.”

The couple’s celebrations center around food. On Hanukkah, they enjoy potato pancakes and jelly-fried doughnuts. For the Chinese New Year, they partake in a large pork and fish dinner. On Christmas day the couple, who live in Chicago, visit Carly’s parents’ home for a traditional turkey and fish dinner. Carly’s parents have a tree and decorate the house with Christmas decorations. “The holidays are about spending time with family and enjoying each other’s traditions,” says Andrew.

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Melanie Grizzel

Melanie Grizzel

While Hanukkah is a modest holiday, for Jessica S. Lappin, Democratic Councilwoman in New York City, it is about spending time with family. Her husband, Andrew Wuertele, always celebrated Christmas. His mom is a Lutheran pastor. Jessica and Andrew were married by a rabbi in a Lutheran church. In their New York City apartment, they have a Christmas tree and menorah. Andrew goes to church, and sometimes he brings their oldest son with him. “We usually go to Andy’s church on Easter,” says Jessica.

“Christmas is special, though, because the Saturday before we spend the weekend with Andy’s family. It’s a wonderful tradition started by Andrew’s parents so the entire family can spend time together. We open presents, but the emphasis is on family. The fact that we celebrate the weekend before Christmas guarantees that we will all be together.” Christmas day is spent at home with their sons. Then they go over to Jessica’s mom’s home. “Hanukkah is a low-key holiday,” says Jessica. We do celebrate Passover with a Seder usually at my mom’s house.” “We are raising our sons in the Jewish faith, and educating them about Andy’s religion. Andy and I believe it is important for them to learn about both of our religions. Showing respect for our differences and making our children take part in all of our celebrations teaches tolerance. It also brings us closer together.”

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