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Interfaith families, inlaws can make holiday peace

For only the third time in 100 years, Christmas and the start of Hanukkah fall on the same date. For some interfaith families, this may be an inconvenience. For others, it may be a downright catastrophe.

It's hard enough to balance two religious observances in the same season. When they share the same day, some families feel pressure to equalize the celebrations, even though Hanukkah has far less religious weight (it's a minor Jewish holiday but gets more commercial hype with each passing year). Worse, some grandparents and other relatives may take it as license to engage in one-upmanship, a not-so-subtle way to woo grandchildren into thinking their holiday is better.

For grandparents who might feel that competitive urge, stifle it. For parents who think their parents might succumb, don't leave it to chance.

''Diplomacy is what's called for," says educator Sunie Levin of Shawnee Mission, Kan., who lectures nationally on intergenerational interfaith issues. Otherwise, there's resentment all around for the adults, and confusion for the children.

''It may seem innocent enough for a grandparent to ask a 7-year-old who's sitting on your lap in front of the Christmas tree, 'So what does your Hanukkah grandpa give you?' but it's a pretty loaded question," says family psychotherapist Nancy Wasserman-Cocola of New York City. It can undermine a child's sense of well-being and make her anxious: Is she being disloyal to one set of grandparents because she's having a good time at the other's?

What's more, adds Wasserman-Cocola, ''It happens all the time, and parents often don't even know." She is author of ''Six in The Bed, Dealing with Parents, In-Laws and Their Impact on Your Marriage" (Berkley Publishing, 1997).

Her advice to parents is to make decisions about holiday schedules at the beginning of each year (or season) and to mail them to their parents. That's better than a phone call, she says: ''It gives them time to digest the information." If grandparents are likely to be emotional, she also suggests ''giving with one hand even as you take away with the other: 'We can't be together the first night of Hanukkah but we'd like to be with you on the fifth night. The kids are looking forward to making latkes with you!' "

''Many grandparents feel they are 'losing the grandchild to the other side,' " says Wasserman-Cocola. ''It helps if they feel you are accommodating them somehow." That fear of loss is also often what motivates a grandparent to do or say something that can frighten or confuse a child, even though that isn't what they intend.

This is where parents need to be proactive, sometimes on two fronts.

To your parents you may need to say, ''We realize you have some misgivings about the way we celebrate, but it's what we've decided. We don't appreciate it if you talk to the kids in negative ways." Have this conversation with your spouse present, so there's no room for misunderstanding, Wasserman-Cocola says. Also be clear about the consequences: ''We want the children to enjoy the time they are with each grandparent so they remember the holidays as enjoyable, not as a time of confusion about which grandparent is right or wrong." Be clear that if parents can't be respectful, you may make different arrangements next season.

To your children, she might say, ''Grandma and Grandpa miss you so much when you aren't there. The holidays are very special to them. Sometimes they say foolish things and they forget that we enjoy celebrating both holidays."

It's not that grandparents need to curtail their own celebrations. If your grandchildren are coming to your house for Christmas, then you can give Christmas gifts in Christmas wrapping, says Levin. But if you are going to their house for Hanukkah, use Hanukkah wrapping. Levin is author of ''Mingled Roots, second edition" (UAHC, 2003).

With the overlap this year, the most diplomatic gesture grandparents can make is to ask your child and his spouse how they want to handle the day. If you are Christian, for instance, and your Christian son, his Jewish wife, and their Jewish children will be with you, you might suggest they bring a menorah to light that night and make a place of honor for it.

That generosity of spirit can go a long way, says Edmund Case, founder and president of, a nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization based in Newton. ''There obviously has to be a comfort level for families to start their celebration of Hanukkah at the home of a non-Jewish relative," he says.

Similarly, Jewish grandparents who know their daughter's family will be spending Christmas Day with their Christian son-in-law's parents would be wise to offer to defer their family candle lighting to another night. In addition to being confusing to children, it also makes for an exhausting day. In fact, some extended families may prefer to gather on the last night, when the menorah is brightest because all the candles are lit.

Accommodation and coexistence are paramount for Paula and David Hellman of Stockbridge, who are Jewish, and their daughter, Tara Remick, of nearby Housatonic, and grandson Caleb, 6 1/2. Remick became a Southern Baptist before her son was born, has since divorced his father, and is now engaged to Roger Kimberley, who is also Baptist and has two teenagers.

On Christmas morning, Tara and Caleb will open presents together, then go to Berkshire Hills Baptist Church, an independent fundamentalist church, where she will sing in the choir with Roger's daughter, Amber. Her mother will be in the congregation.

It will be a first for Paula.

''Two years ago, I chanted from the Torah on my birthday at my synagogue," she says. ''Roger and his children came. They had never been to synagogue before. I felt very supported, so on Christmas, I want to see my daughter sing, and return the favor."

Later on Christmas Day, Tara, Caleb, Roger, David, and Amber will go to the Hellmans' to light Hanukkah candles. Paula suggested they do it another night, but Tara says, ''It's our family tradition to be together on the first night." Caleb will bring his own menorah (one he made with his grandmother) and the gifts they exchange that night will be wrapped in Hanukkah paper.

Paula does not pretend this is easy. Her husband, for instance, hasn't yet decided if he'll go to church. ''Whatever my reaction is inside, my hope is I can keep it on the inside," she says, much as she does when she visits Tara and Caleb. ''Their home has a lot of Christian imagery," including a night-light in Caleb's room that says, 'Jesus Loves Me.'

''I don't say anything about it," she says. ''I don't ask why it's there, I don't call attention to it. I focus on other things."

Paula, who is principal of the religious school at Congregation Hevrah of Southern Berkshire, has come to her tolerance partly from hearing Jewish grandparents of non-Jewish grandchildren talk about ''walking on eggshells [about the subject of religion]. I didn't want to be one of those grandparents," she says. She and Tara have an ongoing conversation about their religious differences, but not in a confrontational way.

''I realized the most important thing for me, as a grandmother, is that I be allowed to be who I am, without any ambiguity," she says. At the same time, she is respectful. ''If I want to read Caleb a book about Shabbos [the Sabbath], I ask first."

When Caleb asked her recently, ''What, exactly, is Shabbos?" she told him, ''It's what the Jews call a day of rest."

On Christmas morning, as she holds Caleb's hand and stands when he stands and sits when he sits, if he asks her why she's at church with him, she'll tell him, ''It's because I want to be with you on your holiday."

Contact Barbara Meltz at

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