Doubling the Joy of the Holiday Season: Navigating the December Holidays for Interfaith Families
By Carrie Fink and Leah Persky
The holiday season, Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, can be a time of wonderful celebration and can also be a time of emotional intensity and stress. The business of the season and any complicated family dynamics can lead to stress and/or disagreements. One of the biggest challenges for interfaith families is figuring out how to navigate the celebration of the major holidays, especially the December holidays.
Figuring out how exactly to celebrate Christmas and Chanukah in a way that makes sense for the unique cultural, social and religious needs of an interfaith family can be a challenge. It is not surprising that many families delay conversations about how to celebrate the holidays – they are emotionally charged, delicate conversations and are often confusing – and there are rarely clear-cut answers. Common questions include: Should we have a tree in the house? Do we give the kids presents for Chanukah and Christmas? Should we invite people of other religions to our family’s holiday celebration? And how do we even begin to communicate our family’s expectations to extended family of other religions?
Creating effective pathways of communication and empathy creates a solid foundation for discussions throughout the year and allows couples and families to more effectively address the challenges and opportunities that surface at this time of year. It all starts with compassion as Zen Master, Nobel Prize nominee and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh asserts. He notes that we should think of compassion as a verb. This brings us to the concept of Compassionate Curiosity and its power to transform and prevent conflicts in our personal and professional lives. Compassionate curiosity begins when we make small, but important changes and commit to being present and ready to listen to those around us.
Having discussions based in compassionate curiosity in advance of the December holidays can potentially alleviate problems that erupt or are trigged by certain holiday events and traditions. Set aside time for these important conversations. Use this time to dig deeper into what you and your loved ones want and your goals for the holidays. Here is how you can put compassionate curiosity into practice:
Components of Compassionate Curiosity
- Set aside any distractions
- Make eye contact
- Be attuned to body language and feelings that come up
- Ask open-ended questions
- Be curious about what your loved one is feeling and thinking
- Request clarification on anything you are uncertain about
- Summarize what you heard the other person saying
- Try to let go of assumptions and be curious about what the other person needs and wants
While none of these things are easy to do, over time and with practice, they come more easily. Making others feel seen and heard harnesses the power of compassionate curiosity and can positively transform conflicts and shouting matches into opportunities for meaningful discussion, growth, and forging closer relationships.
Talking to your children or grandchildren about the holidays
Setting a solid foundation with your partner and/or other close family about the December holidays and traditions will enable you to have unified, meaningful conversations with your children and grandchildren. Lead with compassionate curiosity, listen and sympathize, and explain to your kids how you handle your feelings about the holiday. Don’t try to talk your children out of their feelings. Remember, you do not have to know all the answers! For the toddlers and preschoolers in your life, everything is fun! Expose them to the favorite traditions of both parents. Elementary school-age children begin to understand that each family has their own way of doing things. Common feelings at this age include jealousy, sadness, outrage, and the idea of fairness. Sharing gift expectations and scheduled festivities in advance can help mitigate these feelings.
Share the message to your children that holiday joy and traditions can be doubled, not halved. Dual holidays mean that your children can share traditions about both holidays with friends and extended family, exposing them to a culture they may have not had the opportunity to experience. Most importantly, they can enjoy Christmas and Chanukah activities without betraying either parent of their religious upbringing.
Books help kids of all ages see families like their own, and there are many relatable age-appropriate options for interfaith families regarding the winter holidays:
- Nonna’s Chanukah Surprise by Karen Fisman
- Daddy Christmas and Chanukah Mama by Selina Alko
- My Two Holidays: A Chanukah and Christmas Story by Danielle Novack
For more on Compassionate Curiosity, see the following book: Nobody Will Play With Me: How To Use Compassionate Curiosity to Find Confidence in Conflict by Kwame Christian (2018)
Carrie Fink is JFCS’ PJ Library Coordinator and Leah Persky is JFCS’ Family Life Education (FLE) Program Manager. Family Life Education takes JFCS out into the community and brings the community into JFCS through presentations, trainings, workshops, classes, support groups, individual meetings and consultations. The foundations of FLE are collaboration, prevention and education with the goal of promoting individual, family and community well-being and empowerment throughout the lifespan. Click here for more information.