For some interfaith families, the holidays are a juggling act

Interfaith families
On the first night of Hanukkah, Ethan Sommer and his wife Alison, with their daughters Kaylee, age 4, center, and Danielle, age 2, light one candle on the Menorah before reciting a blessing Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 at their Minnetonka home. Afterwards, the girls each received one gift, and the Sommers ate dinner with latkes together.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Alison Sommer's home in Minnetonka will be filled with both Christmas cheer and the lights of Hanukkah this week.

Sommer grew up celebrating Christmas, but her husband Ethan is Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah. When the two started dating a decade ago, they began combining their traditions.

Their dual celebrations continued after their marriage and the births of their 2- and 4-year-old daughters. The children light a menorah and play with dreidels, and also receive gifts from Santa Claus under their family's Christmas tree.

For interfaith families who celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, December can be a hectic time — especially this year as Hanukkah and Christmas overlap. For Sommer and her family, it's welcomed chaos.

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"We always thought it was kind of a bonus," she said. "If there's any excuse to celebrate, cook a big meal, have a special treat, what have you, I jump on it. So we celebrate most anything we have an excuse to."

Hanukkah is celebrated according to the Hebrew calendar, which means it can occur as early as late November. For more information about Hanukkah, read this News Cut post.

Sommer acknowledges that it can be tricky to celebrate both holidays with young children. Most of her daughters' friends only celebrate Christmas, and the girls don't understand why others don't celebrate Hanukkah, Sommer said.

Interfaith families
Ethan Sommer, right, helps his daughters Kaylee, age 4, left, and Danielle, age 2, center, play with toy bears they received on the first night of Hanukkah Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 at their home in Minnetonka.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"The hardest part is just trying to find a balance of how much to emphasize Hanukkah and Christmas," she said, explaining that Hanukkah isn't one of the most important Jewish holidays. "You don't want to overemphasize it, but you don't want it to get completely lost, either."

For Hannah Baines' family, December can be even more complicated. Besides Christmas and Hanukkah, she, her husband and their 2-year-old daughter also celebrate her daughter's birthday on Dec. 17 and St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6 in honor of his mother, who has German roots. They also celebrate what she calls a "Jewish Christmas," which for them consists of going to a movie and eating Chinese food on Dec. 25.

"When we were expecting a baby it was really important to us that she be a mixture of both of us equally, so it's important that she's also experiencing our families and their traditions," said Baines, of Minneapolis, who grew up Jewish.

But Baines admits this year they considered simplifying the holiday traditions.

"We want to make sure we're creating traditions that make sense," she said.

In the end, they figured out a way to do everything and see everyone.

"We feel like it's just one month out of the year where there is just a lot of family stuff," she said. "And we're lucky we have a family."

Interfaith families
Ethan and Alison Sommer make latkes together on the first night of Hanukkah, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 at their Minnetonka home. The Sommers celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Family therapists who have worked with interfaith families say holidays can be difficult for families, but they're usually less difficult to navigate than marriages, births and deaths.

"The holidays are softer but they come up more often," said Lynne Silva-Breen, a former Lutheran pastor who runs a marriage and family counseling service in Burnsville.

Silva-Breen said there's no standard way an interfaith family celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah — some decide to raise their children in only one faith and only celebrate that faith's holiday. Others mix it up.

"The healthiest families have figured out what's important by talking about it," she said. "I don't think there is only one successful path."

Rena Waxman, executive director of the Jewish Family Service of St. Paul, agreed. "It's a very individualized kind of thing," she said, noting that the holidays can be a challenging time even for couples of one faith who are feeling pressures from extended family.

"We are all merely people trying to find or create meaning in our lives."

As for deciding what holidays are important, some religious leaders recommend against celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah, especially if children are involved. Rabbi Adam Spilker of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul said for children from mixed families being raised Jewish, that means celebrating Hanukkah for themselves, and perhaps helping the Christian side of the family celebrate Christmas.

"It's like birthdays," Spilker said. "Kids know they can enjoy someone else's birthday even though it is not her/his own."

Some interfaith families in MPR's Public Insight Network said they decided to focus on one holiday.

Zeb Leslie's family is celebrating Hanukkah, a holiday largely free from the commercial hubbub that allows for meaningful family tradition, he said.

Leslie, of Moorhead, was raised by non-practicing Christian parents, and his wife comes from a Jewish family. It was easy for him to give up Christmas, along with the onslaught of Christmas music and corporate advertising, he said.

"It's so powerful in our culture. If you're going to be part of society, you can't get away from it," he said. "It does put a damper on what we want to do for our family, but it doesn't stop us from doing what we want to do."

Their tradition includes lighting the menorah and giving their daughters, ages 1 and 3, small gifts each night of Hanukkah. But Leslie said it's becoming more of a challenge to avoid Christmas. It can be confusing for young children. His older daughter is starting to ask questions about Christmas trees and Santa Claus.

"If they hear their friends are getting dozens of presents from some character named Santa, I'm sure they'll be disappointed," he said. "When they're older we'll give them all the information we can and then they'll decide for themselves if they're happy about it or not."

Being an interfaith family isn't challenging in and of itself, Leslie said, but the consumer culture doesn't embrace that diversity.

"We are all merely people trying to find or create meaning in our lives," he said. "We look forward to the day when [our daughters] can make some sense of this time of year in America."