Holiday battles For interfaith families, it's the season to be stressed

An interfaith family is all smiles at the Edlavitch DCJCC’s Make Room for Latkes event.
Photo courtesy of Edlavitch DCJCC

Marci Shegogue grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Montgomery County that stayed about as far from Christmas as anyone can in suburban America.

“We did nothing Christian at all. No Christmas tree, no Christmas shopping, no sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall,” she says.

Her husband, Rich Shegogue, 52, grew up just miles away in Prince George’s County but worlds apart in terms of religious tradition, and steps from his family’s Roman Catholic church. The two met studying musical theater in college, and the obvious questions of child-rearing lingered as the courtship progressed, Marci Shegogue says.

For interfaith families, in particular those with young children and still forming their own traditions, December can be a time of stress, both real and perceived.

Early in their marriage, the holidays posed little difficulty — they’d celebrate Chanukah at her family’s home and Christmas with his. But she never quite realized how fraught things could be until she was looking ahead to December with two young daughters, wondering how she could craft a holiday tradition that both stayed true to her faith and accommodated her husband’s.

Theirs is far from a unique dilemma. By all measures, the mixing of religious backgrounds is on the rise.

According to a Pew Research study, nearly 40 percent of Americans who got married between 2010 and 2015 had a spouse of a different faith. For people married before 1960, that number is just 19 percent. The same study showed that 35 percent of Jews were married to or living with a non-Jew.

For Marci Shegogue, 52, it came down to a willingness to compromise. She says it wasn’t that hard for her husband to adopt certain Jewish traditions, taking comfort in the shared holy books. But she had to come around to the idea that her children would be growing up with a Christmas tree and looking forward to Santa’s arrival.

“I reconciled to myself that Santa Claus is a doer of good,” she says. “And something that’s positive and happy and hopeful for kids.”

But she also made sure that her daughters, now 20 and 16, understood the significance of Chanukah.

“When we do Chanukah, it’s not just the menorah and the dreidel,” she says. “It’s the story and the meaning of it.”

Of course, there was the touchy matter of Jesus. But ultimately, she says, she was able to walk herself up to the point of celebrating the historical figure for his deeds and significance, while stopping short of acknowledging any messianic virtue.

Today, she says, both of their daughters think of themselves not as Jewish or Christian, but truly interfaith, and versed in both of their parents’ religions.

She and her husband both teach at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington Sunday school, which she credits with helping them navigate the season when they were younger and hadn’t established their December routine. At the school, she says, they’d gotten guidance from more experienced interfaith families. Now, they’re the ones handing it out.

“We had a lot of friends around us telling us we couldn’t do what we were doing,” Marci Shegogue says. “But [the IFFP] made a huge difference for us because we didn’t feel alone.”

Even for the less devout, the December holidays can be anxiety-inducing because of the cultural importance they hold. Karen Daniel, 67, says she grew up Presbyterian — “technically” — near Springfield, Mass. Her parents never emphasized faith, and after coming of age in the late ’60s and “embracing the counter-culture, for a time,” she says whatever affinity she had for organized religion was gone. Her love for the Christmas spirit, though, endured.

“A real Christian would probably hate me,” Daniel says, laughing. “It’s people like me who’ve totally co-opted their holiday.”

Her Jewish then-husband was hardly the pinnacle of piety either, she says. He’d grown up in a Conservative Jewish home, but by the time they had children and settled in Connecticut, he barely observed Judaism outside of the High Holidays and Chanukah.

The two quickly settled on a system for December. On the first night of Chanukah, they’d “check the Jewish box,” Daniel says, by having a large dinner with family, discussing the Chanukah story and reciting a truncated blessing. For the remaining nights, the candles would be lit and a small gift exchanged. Then, on Christmas Eve, they’d decorate their Douglas fir and wake up the next morning to presents from Santa.

At first, she says, it hurt her husband to see how much more excited their children were about Christmas.

“I think for him, it was just another example of the Christmas behemoth dominating the whole season,” Daniel says. “And I understand that. We both just wanted our children to celebrate the way we did as kids, but it can never be the same when you add this whole other element.”

Their youngest son, Eli Friedman, 31, who now works as a graphic designer in Washington, agrees that their enthusiasm wasn’t quite as high for Chanukah.

“It always felt like a more serious holiday,” he says. “Even the presents weren’t as fun. It wasn’t until Christmas morning that we’d get the classic stuff — bikes and video games and all that.”

But in an interesting twist, Friedman says he now identifies far more with his Jewish side. He’s far from religious, he says, but he’ll occasionally drop in on Shabbat service alone or go to a “Jewish millennial event.”

And almost as if to repay his father for the earlier holiday imbalance, he seeks his father’s counsel on his own spiritual journey and Judaism.

“The pull of the Jewish community definitely felt stronger as I grew older,” he says.

So, how is he going to celebrate in December when he has a family of his own?

“Oh boy,” Friedman says. “Can I cross that bridge when I come to it?”

Jforetek@midatlanticmedia.com

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