Taking on the Holidays: The Challenge for Interfaith Families

Friday, December 9, 2011

With the start of every winter holiday season come the mainstays of American Christmas: the toy commercials, 24-hour holiday radio stations, Christmas trees and photos with Santa. Amidst it all, families of minority cultures and religions often struggle to establish themselves in the pervasiveness of secularized Christmas. But some of the most challenged are interfaith families, in which each parent was raised in a different religious or cultural tradition, says Philip Cunningham, Ph.D., professor of theology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

“Interfaith households have the additional task of determining how and what to teach their children from each of their respective traditions, or to choose one or the other as the primary tradition,” says Cunningham. “During the holidays especially, maintaining a balance between the two, or focusing on one without completely sacrificing the other, can be complicated.”

To navigate seasonal celebrations more smoothly, Cunningham, the director of Saint Joseph’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations gives these tips, particularly for the families that prioritize having a rich religious or cultural life:

• Convey an accurate understanding of each tradition that the parents represent. Though parents may choose to raise their children in only one of their religious or cultural traditions, it is key to show how and why the other tradition is important to the second parent, as well as members of the children’s communities.

• Focus on the religious or cultural importance of the holiday, not the commercialized aspects. Emphasizing the significance of each celebration within its respective tradition may deepen children’s understanding of why they may celebrate differently than their peers or parents. Avoiding commercialized traditions, or giving them less emphasis, can alleviate feelings that they’re missing out on the more dominant holiday.

• Handle religious teaching, and celebrating, as a team. Especially when raising a family within only one parent’s tradition, sharing the responsibility of teaching about their religion shows the importance of family and togetherness – themes common to most, if not all, traditions. Participation of the parent outside of the tradition can also relieve the children of any feelings that they are choosing one parent over the other.

• Be aware that different holidays have varying degrees of importance in their respective communities. In the United States, a laudable effort to be sensitive to minority communities sometimes leads to including mention of their winter customs at civic events. The Christian majority should understand, though, that while Christmas is one of the two most important Christian observances – the other being Easter – the festivals of other communities, even if celebrated around the same time, may not be so central to them. For instance, although Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, during the Christmas season, it is a fairly minor festival on the Jewish calendar, being far less significant than Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, or Passover.

• Be sensitive to children’s concerns. Even with a full understanding of their interfaith lifestyle, they may find themselves in situations in which peer pressure is potent. Be aware that kids want to get along with other kids and that this may mean encouraging them to be aware of stereotypes and when, and how, to handle those situations without sacrificing their peer relationships.

Cunningham specializes in theologies of the Jewish and Christian relationship, biblical studies and religious education.

Contact Information

 He can be reached for comment at 610-660-1863 or philip.cunningham@sju.edu, or by calling the Office of University Communications at 610-660-3240.



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