Just a few decades ago, it would have been unusual for a family to decorate a Christmas tree and also have a Hanukkah menorah prominently displayed in the same room. Known as the “December Dilemma,’’ it represented a quandary that sometimes caused great anguish between interfaith couples around how to celebrate their respective holidays.
That issue has all but disappeared with the public’s acceptance of Christian-Jewish unions, with a marriage rate now over 50 percent among Jews in the United States.
“The interfaith dilemma has diminished because people intermarry, and the next generation is becoming more comfortable with that,’’ said Rabbi Baruch HaLevi of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott.
These days, it’s not uncommon for religious symbols to sit side by side in a household. Tucked away on a quiet street of ranch homes in Marblehead, an angel-topped tree glistens with lights above a silver menorah in the Bornsteins’ sunken living room. Along the base of the fireplace are monogrammed Christmas stockings; throughout the house are Star of David and dreidel streamers.
For the Bornsteins and other interfaith couples who have chosen to continue to celebrate the religious holidays they grew up with, there is no road map or established etiquette. Some, like the Bornsteins, are keeping holiday traditions of both faiths but raising their children Jewish. Others raise their children as Christians or with both religions; some with none. Few see it as a contradiction, and most say the holidays are more about American culture than religion.
“Nobody seems to care anymore. There’s no feeling of angst at all. Everyone accepts it,’’ said Bruce Bornstein, a chemist, when asked about having a tree and a menorah in his house. Bornstein enjoys watching his wife, Sandy, decorate the tree, and the couple believe both symbols are reminders of a heritage they want to pass on to their children. They also see food as a big part of the holidays: Together they make latkes - potato pancakes - eat matzo ball soup, and sit down for a turkey dinner on Christmas day.
For Sara Bornstein, an eighth-grader who had a bat mitzvah, Christmas and Hanukkah represent family. “I love doing the Hanukkah prayers with my family, and the best thing about Christmas is spending time with my mother’s family. I love the tradition and the memories,’’ said Sara.
Before 1970, US interfaith marriage rates hovered around 13 percent, according to the latest National Jewish Population Survey released by the United Jewish Communities 10 years ago. That same survey concluded that over half of the Jews who have married since 1991 have taken non-Jewish partners.
While there are no statistics for US Muslims and interfaith marriages, spiritual leaders such as Imam Abdel Hamid say there is also a growing union between Muslims and Christians. According to Hamid, who leads the Outreach Community and Reform Center in Malden, there is no December Dilemma that comes along with Muslim-Christian marriages. Hamid has counseled many Muslims who have married Christians and advises them to respect their religion of birth.
“Acceptance of other traditions, and wisdom and tolerance, is the key,’’ said Hamid.
Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna has a term for the practice of combining Christmas and Hanukkah: “Chrismukkah.’’ Sarna theorized that the joining of the two holidays will be a short-lived tradition as a significant percentage of Jews transition out of their faith.
“I tend to think they do it for generation, as people move from the minority faith to the majority culture. This is an intermediate step,’’ said Sarna.
Mark and Nancy Wolinski see little conflict in marking the two holidays. Wolinski, who still lives in his native Swampscott, has a wreath on his door, garlands and lights wrapped around his fireplace, and a tree and a menorah in his living room.
“I think it’s all cultural,’’ said Wolinski, who grew up in a Jewish home but now goes with his family to a Unitarian Universalist church. “I think it’s good to absorb because we don’t live in homogeneous homogenous sects anymore.’’
The Wolinskis see the traditions as compatible and say their celebration has no traditional religious base. “The tree symbolizes American culture,’’ said Nancy Wolinski, who grew up Catholic.
The Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead says the tree and menorah can coexist in a home. “When we acknowledge all the threads of religiosity and tradition present in our faith community and share their meanings with one another, the entire community is enriched. For me, that is the central message of our faith and something to celebrate in the holiday season,’’ she said.
Beth Presson, who was raised Jewish and is now a single mother in Marblehead, lights the menorah each night of Hanukkah, but also has a tree in her house to represent her ex-husband’s Christian faith. “For us, it’s really the celebration of the season,’’ said Presson, who grew up in Marblehead and always admired Christmas lights and trees.
As she discussed both holidays, Presson sprinkled Yiddish words in her sentences, and said she still considers herself a Jew. She sees no contradiction in putting up a wreath, a tree, and placing a light in each window, along with giving her son a little Hanukkah chocolate gelt each night of the Jewish holiday. Presson, who attends von Zirpolo’s Unitarian Universalist Church on Christmas Eve with her son, says the experience is more about community than religion.
“It’s cultural; it’s so my son can be like the other kids and not feel so left out,’’ she said.
Melissa and Tim Pierce of Gloucester also celebrate both holidays. Melissa, who is Jewish and attends a Gloucester synagogue, says there’s no blueprint on how to best impart the meanings of the traditions to her two children. “It’s a balance. We want them to understand their traditions because they’re made of both,’’ she said.
She acknowledged that celebrating both holidays can be confusing for children. “The biggest fear is that the children will wind up with nothing,’’ she said.
In Swampscott, one child expressed that very feeling. Meredith Wolinski sat near a menorah and a tree and said she was confused by the dual holidays. “I wish that I was brought up strictly with one religion, because I don’t know what I am,’’ said Meredith, who is 11.
Some spiritual leaders, like Malden’s Hamid and Swampscott’s HaLevi, recommend raising a child in one religion. Von Zirpolo, the Marblehead minister, said, “We tell them that no one religion owns the truth and they are responsible for their own path.’’
HaLevi said parents need to impart one identity to a child while simultaneously teaching them to respect other religions. “Kids need boundaries. I don’t see why religion should be any different from any aspect of raising a child. Children can’t handle the choice between Christmas and Hanukkah.’’