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Finding Christmas in the mix

20 December 2013

How do you celebrate Christmas in a mixed-faith family? Tim Wyatt picks his way through the pitfalls, the accommodations, and the shared celebration

DR ALANA VINCENT closed the door on any discussion of blending festivals in her mixed-faith family this winter: "Household Rule Number One is that we do not do 'Christm-ukkah'." As a Jew married to a Presbyterian minister, Dr Vincent said that she was familiar with the intricacies of following two faiths in a single household. Simply merging Hanuk­kah with a celebration of Jesus's birth was not the answer.

The dilemma is one which is con­fronted by a large number of people. In the 2001 census, there were 21,000 mixed-faith marriages in Eng­­land and Wales, and more than 800 in Scotland. There are no com­parable figures available from the 2011 census, but it is almost certain that this number has increased.

For most of these families, separ­ate religious backgrounds will bring a welcome diversity, and add rich­ness to their spirituality. But there are undoubtedly also conflicts - and Christmas can be one. Heather Al-Yousef, from the Inter­faith Marriage Network, said this month that, sometimes, Christ­mas forced couples to face their differences for the first time. "We are in a country where it is unavoid­able. It is a cultural given for every­one, whether they are Christ­ian or not.

"Interfaith couples often have issues which are ostensibly about Christmas, but are really about identity, which came out through how you want to have Christmas."

Among the pitfalls are what to eat on Christmas Day, and whether the children can take part in a nativity play. Rosalind Birtwistle is Christian, but her husband, David Sawyer, is Jew­ish. She never con­sidered not cele­brating Christmas after getting married, she said, but had had to adapt some traditions for the sake of her Jewish family.

"We don't have bacon rolls on the turkey, or a Christmas crib, and our family cards are not overtly Christian," she said. "On Christmas morning, I go to church with my children, who are in their late teens and early 20s now. David stays at home and minds the turkey. Some Jewish people get very worked up about Christmas trees, but my husband is not like that."

These small details are familiar to Graeme Lloyd, a Christian married to a Hindu. "My wife's a vegetarian, so she won't eat turkey on Christ­mas Day. But Christmas for us is really quite traditional - normally, my wife won't come to church with me, but she will make a point of coming on Christmas itself."

Dr Vincent said that she had much less of a problem with a Christ­­ian Christmas than she had with the materialistic and irreligious version. She said: "Absorbing a secular commercial holiday would be actually more disruptive and damaging to my religious outlook'.

The Christian Christmas was not her thing, she said, "although I do think it is very nice that once a year the whole of the Western world has a birthday party for a famous Jewish rabbi." Her Judaism has always been filtered through a sense of being on the outside of a secular, if Christian-ised, culture, she said.

Mrs Al-Yousef, who is herself married to a Muslim, said that Muslims often found it equally dif­ficult to participate in the excesses of Christmas. "I have come across Muslim traditions which say: 'Why does it have to be so over the top, with so much consumption?' and so on. For those who are trying to maintain a Muslim identity, that can be difficult to relate to. It's some­thing that has to be worked out, but for some it isn't worked out - they persist with an unexplored tension."

For many in the UK, Christmas has become so commercialised that they scarcely notice it is a Christian festival. "For example," Mrs Al-­Yousef said, "someone might have taken for granted that they would have a Christmas tree, or go to Midnight Mass, and did not think of it as a particularly Christian thing to do. A family tradition to which you might be very attached, looks, to someone whose culture is different, a statement of faith identity."

It is this friction that was at the heart of a comment discussion on the online parenting forum Mums­net: "Am I being un­­reasonable to want my Muslim [husband] to parti­cipate in Chris­tmas?" the user 'firstontheway' asked. The question was sparked by her husband's decision not to celebrate Christmas on the grounds that it was forbidden by his Islamic faith. The debate generated more than 100 comments.

MS BIRTWISTLE said that her solu­tion was to focus on the theo­logy behind the festival. "For many Christians in mixed-faith families, the angels' message of peace and good will to everybody is important. It is a time of hospitality and family gatherings.

"There's an emphasis on the interpretation of Christmas as peace and goodwill to everyone rather than being a festival of the incarna­tion - where Christmas cards are winter scenes, not Bible verses."

For Mr Lloyd, his wife's plural­istic approach to faith helped avoid any cultural confrontation. "She takes an approach that is quite typical of a lot in India, of many paths to God," he said. "There's no real sense of conflict at all. Hindu­ism believes in several avatars [manifestations of deities]; so my wife could look on Jesus as part of the Hindu plurality in general. With other religions, it might be difficult."

But Dr Vincent's husband, the Revd Dr Mark Godin, said that, as a clergyman, he could not choose which version of Christmas to uphold. "As a minister, I don't cut things out of Christmas. I still have the usual services to go to."

Indeed, for Dr Godin, Christmas, watered-down and partly secular­ised, is as much a challenge as it is to those of other faiths. "The fact that [Christmas] seems secular, but is based on a Christian underpinning, really means that it is only 'sort-of' secular. It is still making an assump­tion about which kinds of faith are traditional and which kinds are not. That is hard for people of other faiths, but also hard for people who are trying as closely as possible to follow Jesus in their way of living. It becomes confusing."

In this muddled context, some mixed-faith families choose the simple path of acknowledging all fest­­i­­vals. Ms Birtwistle said: "Ha­nuk­­­­­­­­kah, which usually happens in December, is a minor Jewish feast, but it has taken on a Christmassy feel. My kids always like Hanukkah, because they get a present of Hanukkah geld [gifts of money] from Grandpa. We do a menorah, and light candles."

When the couple's children featured in the church's nativity play, Mr Sawyer fitted them with a yarmulke [Jewish skull-cap] rather than the more traditional tea towel - "After all, Joseph was Jewish," Ms Birtwistle said. "Our Jewish relatives come to us for Christmas dinner - we go to their house for the Passover Seder - and they love it."

This embracing of different faith's festivals is quite common, Mrs Al-Yousef said: "In practice, when people work it out, they say 'We do Christmas, we do Ramadan, we do everything, and it's all lovely.'"

Mr Lloyd said that, as his wife would come to church with him on Christmas Day, so he would visit the temple with her at New Year. But it is not always so straightforward. Acknowledging different festivals could be "an aspirational thing", Mrs Al-Yousef said, "but there is always a little bit of anxiety, muddling and mixing things."

Another flashpoint is the chil­dren. Ms Birtwistle said that, once her children got into their teens, she allowed them to choose their own faith identity, and their own way of celebrating (or not celebrating) Christmas.

"We are still very consciously half-Jewish. Two of them have been to both church and synagogue," she said. Mr Lloyd's children had a similar outlook, he said: "My chil­dren are quite happy to go to both church and temple, and learn from both cultures."

Even where a couple have made a firm decision to raise their children in just one religion, Christmas, it is assumed, will sometimes supersede this. Mrs Al-Yousef said: "Where Christians are bringing up their children as Muslims, there can be issues - 'I didn't know it meant they could not be in the nativity'. That is a common problem."

But it seems that, for the children themselves, the intricate and complex interplay between two faiths has less relevance: they are happy to take part in as many festivals as are on offer. "Children will get involved in whatever, but it is good to know the difference, and what commemorates what. They don't get muddled," Ms Birtwistle said.

Perhaps it is the children who have found the simplest path through the mixed-faith jungle, appreciating the richness of spiritual diversity without conflating proudly different religions.

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