Interfaith Marriages

Topeka family will celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah this year

Sean and Hayley Magee, with children Norah, 4, and Alex, 6 months, are an interfaith family who will be celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah this year. (Phil Anderson/The Capital-Journal)

Like many interfaith families, Sean and Hayley Magee, of Topeka, have had to make some decisions on how they and their children will celebrate the holidays — in particular Hanukkah and Christmas, which, in something of a rarity, will both begin on the same day this weekend.

Sean, 45, was raised in a Christian home in Sabetha. Hayley, 34, grew up in a Jewish home in Los Angeles and Dallas, before moving to Lawrence, where she attended The University of Kansas — the place she and her husband met.

Early in their marriage, the holidays weren’t that big of a challenge for the Magees. They would go to their respective parents’ homes to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas.

Then, in 2012, their first child, Norah, arrived. And earlier this year, the couple had their second child with the birth of Max, who is 6 months old.

The couple has had to decide not only on which faith tradition to raise their children, but also on how the little ones will celebrate the holidays, especially when it comes to taking part in their mother and father’s traditional family affairs. For Hanukkah celebrations, the children go with Hayley to be with her family in the Kansas City area. For Christmas, the children go with Sean to his family’s home in Sabetha.

So far, the arrangement seems to be working well, Hayley said.

“I have some children’s books on interfaith families and the holidays,” she said. “They say, ‘Some families only celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas, but our family is special, because we get to do both.’ ”

She said she thought the books have made it possible for Norah get a grasp — and an appreciation — for both Hanukkah and Christmas: “I think’s she’ll be able to understand it a little better this year.”

The couple decided that their two children would be raised Jewish — something important to Hayley, as she was brought up in an observant Jewish home, even attending a Jewish day school when she was growing up in Los Angeles.

“We’re active in Temple Beth Sholom,” said Hayley, a kindergarten teacher at Meadows Elementary School in Topeka. “I take Norah and Max with me to Shabbat services once a month. And Norah also goes to Sunday school at Temple.”

She said it is important for the couple’s children to maintain a connection with both sides of their family. Keeping both the Jewish and Christian holidays is a way of doing that, she said. To that end, the family’s home has both menorahs and a Christmas tree with colorful lights on display.

The Magees and their children will take part in lighting the menorah in their home during the eight nights of Hanukkah, as well as giving gifts and eating traditional foods associated with the holiday. They also will give presents on Christmas day.

Though Hanukkah and Christmas frequently overlap, they seldom start on the same day. Until this year, the holidays last began on the same date in 2005 and before that in 1959.

Though it isn’t considered among the major Jewish festivals, Hanukkah is one of the most widely observed. Also known as the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday that commemorates the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees after their victory over their Syrian oppressors in 168 B.C. The victory helped the Jews win back the right to practice their religion.

Since Jewish holidays are based on the lunar calendar, their dates vary from one year to the next on the Western calendar. As a result, Hanukkah — which occurs each year on the 25th day of the month of Kislev on the Jewish calendar — can begin anywhere from late November to late December. This year, Hanukkah observances will begin at sundown Saturday, Dec. 24, with the first full day of the holiday on Dec. 25.

Meanwhile, Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, occurs each year on Dec. 25. Many Christians will make their way to churches for Christmas Eve services on Saturday, Dec. 24, the day before the holiday is celebrated.

With Hanukkah and Christmas coinciding this year, special challenges not usually present may occur with interfaith families that make an effort to celebrate the two holidays.

Interfaith families are not unusual in many Jewish congregations. According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, 47 percent of Jews marrying between 1996 and 2001 married non-Jews — the last years for which statistics were available. Additionally, 31 percent of all married Jews are intermarried, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

In Topeka, many interfaith couples and families are active at Temple Beth Sholom, 4200 S.W. Munson, which comes as no surprise to Rabbi Debbie Stiel.

“Many Jews today are in interfaith marriages because we live in a very open society,” Stiel said, “and as part of a small religious group in America, there is a good chance that Jews will meet and fall in love with someone who is not Jewish.”

Stiel said she often works with interfaith couples at Temple Beth Sholom to help them work through religious differences.

“I think each interfaith family has to decide how they will handle the mix of religions in one house,” Stiel said. “It has long been the policy of Reform Judaism to encourage families to pick one faith to raise the kids in. To try to raise kids actively in more than one faith is confusing to the kids and does not help them develop a strong faith identity. At the same time, the kids can certainly learn about and experience aspects of the faith tradition they are not being raised in.”

These issues should be discussed before a couple takes the plunge and gets married, Stiel said.

“If a couple is going to have an interfaith marriage,” she said, “ideally before they marry they should discuss important issues such as how they will raise the children and what religious traditions will be practiced in the home. The holidays come around every year and being part of a religion is something that impacts who we are, where we worship and what we think, so differences of faith should not be treated as inconsequential.

“My experience has been that if both partners are very tied to their faiths it can be difficult, though not impossible, to agree on religious practices for the home that everyone truly feels good about. On the other hand, I have often seen where one parent is not very religious and feels fine participating in the other faith. Then there is one predominant faith in the home, and this works well.”

Stiel said that holidays don’t need to be a major stumbling block in interfaith families.

“Hanukkah and Christmas really occupy very little of the year,” Stiel said. “What is most important is the religious faith, practice and knowledge we impart the rest of the year. So I encourage parents not to get bent out of shape if the children they are raising as Jews are given Christmas presents by their non-Jewish grandparents, or things like that. And if there are big religious family discussions that need to happen, don’t do them at this time of year.”

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