Across Differing Faiths, Shared Holidays

December 17, 2008

Author: Michael Winerip

Source: The New York Times

Pam Gawley is Jewish, her husband, Steven, is Catholic, and from the time they started dating, they celebrated each other’s holidays together. Christmas and Easter, they went to his parents’ home; Rosh Hashana, Hanukkah and Passover, to her parents’.

“Everything was very equal,” said Mr. Gawley, a music executive. They were married by a judge in a civil ceremony 18 years ago, and each December, their home in Port Washington, N.Y., is decorated for both holidays. “We started with a small Christmas tree and a menorah with electric bulbs,” Mr. Gawley said. “And then the tree got bigger, and we got Hanukkah pillows...”

“Mixing the holidays was always very easy, we didn’t really give it much thought,” Ms. Gawley said.

Until nine years ago, when their firstborn, Michaela, was 3. As usual, Mr. Gawley was working long hours, so Ms. Gawley, a stay-at-home mom, put up the Christmas tree, with the help of her brother and her dad.

When Mr. Gawley came home from the office, everyone was admiring the tree, and little Michaela asked, “Why do we celebrate Christmas?”

“Because Christmas is God’s birthday,” Mr. Gawley said.

“I didn’t say a word,” Ms. Gawley said. “I just said, ‘Can you come into the bedroom with me?’ ”

“She wasn’t happy,” Mr. Gawley said.

“I went bananas,” Ms. Gawley said. “Here my dad, my brother and I had just put up this Christmas tree — three Jews. I said to him, ‘You can’t say that.’ At that moment I knew we had to figure out how to handle this.”

Kids change everything. For Ms. Gawley, her daughter’s question started her on a search for a more systematic way to provide their children (the couple have three, now ages 12, 8 and 3) with a balanced religious upbringing in a mixed marriage.

The Gawleys have lots of company. In 1970, 13 percent of married American Jews were in mixed marriages; by 2001, 31 percent were, according to the National Jewish Population Survey done by United Jewish Communities. And that rate has risen steadily; between 1996 and 2001 (the last time the survey was conducted), nearly half the Jews who married — 47 percent — married outside their faith.

While most mixed families find their own way through the holidays, a small but growing number like the Gawleys, mainly in urban areas, have joined interfaith groups. In New York there is Interfaith Community, which started in the late 1980s with a handful of parents whose children attended the Trinity School in Manhattan, was formally incorporated in 2003 and now has 120 families, with chapters on Long Island, in Westchester and Connecticut, along with a chapter that combines Orange and Rockland Counties in New York and Bergen County in New Jersey.