By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Interfaith couples face a split decision next week
Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations overlap during last full week of December this year
Placeholder Image

Shalom B'harim

Meets at: Dahlonega Presbyterian Church, 150 Warwick Street, Dahlonega
More info: 770-297-1058

This year, Christians and Jews will celebrate one of their faith's most important holidays the same week - Hanukkah and Christmas.

For those involved in interfaith relationships, whether marriage or otherwise, some interesting issues may arise with the dual holiday week.

Interfaith counselor Suzette Cohen said she thinks that when both holidays happen at the same time it is more difficult for interfaith relationships.

"Some people say it is harder because sometimes you can more easily separate them out when they happen separately," said Cohen, who is a member of the Shalom B'harim congregation in Dahlonega. "I've had one woman who said ‘Look I just can't deal with this anymore; we just go out of town and we go on vacation so we don't have to deal with any of it.' "

As a counselor, Cohen said she has taught a program specifically for interfaith couples.

"We've run programs called the December Dilemma where you come together to talk about what are we going to do and what's best for us as a couple, what's best for our family."

Suzette Cohen is the wife of Shalom B'harim's synagogue assistant Mitch Cohen and works as an interfaith counselor for Pathways, a community partnership of the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Atlanta.

But Mitch, who also serves as an interfaith counselor at Pathways, said he views the overlapping of the two holidays much different than his wife. He thinks since Hanukkah and Christmas are the same week this year it makes it easier for those in interfaith relationships.

"I absolutely think it makes it easier because they can find some common ritual around that," he said. "The last four days of Hanukkah will be Christmas; it kind of reminds both partners of the commonalities between the traditions.

"Let's face it, Jesus lit a menorah ... it's kind of nice that it's happening around the same time and it's honoring each other at the same time."

In the Jewish faith, Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, which is an eight-day commemoration of rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem. The festival always begins on the 25th day of Jewish month of Kislev, which is usually in December but sometimes in late November, according to

Christmas Day, which is celebrated on Dec. 25, is the day that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown on Sunday and the holiday overlaps with Christmas Day on Thursday.

"What I've learned over the 10 years of working with these couples is that for the Christian partner it's not the religious part that they miss, especially if they're deciding to give it up - in other words, to not have a tree in the house," Mitch said. "It's the loss or giving up of their childhood memories. In other words, they have memories of their grandparents, they have memories of the dinner."

For one man Mitch counseled, it was hard to let go of the train his grandfather put up each Christmas.

"He said he didn't really care about the tree - it was that train set."

Suzette agreed many Christians or former Christians have a hard time giving up their traditions.

"We completely understand that Christmas is a time for the non-Jewish partner; that kind of brings them back to their childhood and there's always conversations of whether or not to have a tree," she said. "So we just completely understand and we acknowledge and we create a space for the conversation about it, instead of people arguing and fighting and not dealing with it."

So, Suzette and Mitch facilitate healthy conversations at Pathways for couples to settle their religious differences.

"What we hear from our families is that the Christmas tree isn't a religious symbol, it's more a cultural symbol. And that's also bringing them back to their childhood where they had happy memories," Suzette said. "The ornaments can have a connection to grandparents ... each ornament seems to have a story. So we talk about that and we acknowledge that and we also help them create new traditions for their own family."

Getting interfaith families to create new traditions is one of the ways Suzette and Mitch teach folks how to deal with the holiday season.

Mitch said one woman in his support group missed the excitement of Christmas morning so the family decided to give the children Hanukkah presents in the morning.

"She created a new tradition that honored her childhood Christmas memory but mapped it over to the Jewish tradition," he said.

Along with adding new traditions to the family, it may be helpful to set distinct boundaries.

"If their commitment is to raise Jewish children, they create the Hanukkah holiday in their home; and then they'll often go, most of the time, go to their Christian family to celebrate Christmas," Suzette said. "It's kind of like a birthday party ... When you celebrate at a birthday party, you go and you get involved in the other person's celebration though it may not be your own."

Suzette recommended families should "enjoy the gifts, enjoy the food."

"Celebrate Christmas at the Christian family and celebrate Hanukkah in their home, to create clear boundaries for the children so there's not confusion."

Mitch said to also include Christians in the extended family in the Hanukkah traditions.

"It's OK to invite your non-Jewish family over to light the menorah because even though that is a religious event there is not one single ritual in Judaism that would be offensive to a Christian," Mitch said.