Blending faith traditions tricky during holidays

Posted December 22, 2008

Figuring out what traditions to carry on – or even which holidays to celebrate – can be a significant challenge for couples who come from different cultural or religious backgrounds or those blending families through marriage.

But Linda Cherney, a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Chapel Hill, says it’s a challenge worth taking on. Traditions help families feel like a unit, she says.

“People want to carry on the things of their past to create continuity between generations,” Cherney says. “Traditions provide a place to have fun, create memories and forge a sense of belonging.”

If your family is facing this issue as the holiday season approaches, here are some tips from Cherney and four local couples who have been through the process. The parents we spoke with describe varying degrees of blending or adapting traditions in light of different beliefs or backgrounds.

For Rachel Ruvo of Pittsboro, combining her Jewish heritage with husband Andy’s Catholic background has meant embracing both faiths, worshiping at temple or church on holidays, and joining a fellowship that emphasizes respect for all spiritual practices.
Linda and Kevin Derricks of Cary have agreed to raise their 10-month-old twins in the Jewish faith while still celebrating Christian holidays with Kevin’s family. Seunghee Lee and Brad Mott of Apex nurture a connection to her native country by attending a Korean church and enrolling their son and daughter in programs that teach them about Korean culture.

The important thing in charting this path together, Cherney says, is that spouses are respectful and supportive of one another’s beliefs and traditions, even if they choose to practice just one faith as a family.

The couples discussed these matters prior to marrying, allowing them to cultivate traditions more deliberately. Both Linda and Kevin came from families that explored or even converted to other religions, so “it was a given that we would be open to one another’s beliefs and traditions,” Linda says.

Rachel and Andy began their lives together by having both a priest and a rabbi officiate at their wedding.

Theresa Menz and Seth Kullman of Chapel Hill sought couples counseling to work through differences in their backgrounds – she was raised a Catholic, he was a nonpracticing Jew – while creating a new family with her preteen son. The process wasn’t easy, Theresa says, but it helped them understand their own limits and determine how they could explore spirituality together.

Cherney emphasizes that communication is crucial, especially with blended families. Even if you’ve had these conversations before, she suggests touching base each holiday season to “troubleshoot” potential problems caused by differences in beliefs, expectations or experiences. If the issue causes tension between spouses, she adds, “a few sessions of coaching with a professional may help.”

Even the best plans may require adjusting because families change over time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Theresa says that, in the years since she and Seth married, “trust and experience have given us a basis for making plans as a family, so the boundaries we negotiated have relaxed. We have both moved beyond our initial comfort zones.”

They now enjoy exploring Jewish traditions together – something Seth had not done much, prior to their marriage – and even Theresa’s son has grown spiritually through sharing holidays with his stepfather.

Rachel points out that Thanksgiving has actually emerged as the family’s most valued holiday, despite all the hoopla over celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah. “It’s a time to focus on thankfulness, friendship and family,” she says. “We invite everyone from our circle to dinner and talk to our children about the importance of those connections.”

Holidays can become a blur of activity as couples seek to make everything about their blended celebrations special. Rachel admits that she and Andy have often “scratched our heads at the calendar” while trying to schedule holiday activities.

“For practicality’s sake,” she says, “make the traditions easy to maintain. It only gets more complicated as the kids get older.”

Seunghee explains that “finding time to ensure we’re providing good coverage of both of our cultures” is their greatest challenge. As a result, she and Brad have agreed to explore a “subset” of traditions from each culture, celebrating some holidays in American fashion and others, such as the Korean New Year, in Korean fashion.

“Keep the list of family traditions shorter rather than longer,” Cherney says, “so that the ones you maintain are truly meaningful. If the holidays get too complicated, the memories might not be good ones.”

Change can be difficult, and sometimes even willing partners feel a sense of loss over no longer doing things “their” way. As Rachel puts it, “The holidays don’t feel like they did when we were kids.”

Theresa notes that she and her son have put aside some aspects of their Christmas celebration out of respect for Seth’s feelings.

For Linda, whose family drifted away from Judaism during her teen years, recommitting to her faith has brought regret that so few members of her family are practicing with her. She’s also trying to forgive herself for having forgotten many of the rituals she practiced as a child.

“I’m basically starting from scratch with some of the customs of my faith,” she says. “I wish I had a more established community to support my sons as they learn and grow.”

In this respect, Cherney encourages parents to be patient and perhaps even lower their expectations. If you’re in the first year of blending a family, be prepared for the possibility that older children may express reluctance or even resentment over trying new things.

Cherney urges families experiencing this transition to enjoy “even the little moments that signify the beginning of that ‘family’ feel.”

Rachel recalls being “over the moon” when she first got to decorate the house for Christmas, and she admits she is usually the first one in the family to don a festive sweater. Linda is excited about the little Hanukkah sacks, decorated with Jewish symbols and filled with a gift for each night of the festival, that her mother is making for her infant sons. To her, it is nod of support for the Christmas stockings they will have at Kevin’s parents’ house.

For Theresa, memories of her first Hanukkah with Seth include the dish towels he ruined when he used them to squeeze liquid out of the potatoes he had shredded to make latkes. “One hazard of having an authentic cook,” she says with a smile.

Whatever path they have taken, these parents agree that open-mindedness and respect were crucial to developing meaningful customs in their family. They also note that the process has brought them closer to their partners.

“It’s a continuous collaboration,” Linda says, “and a wonderful learning experience for everyone in the family.”


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