The December holidays can be one of the most stressful times of the year. Sure, everyone is supposed to enjoy themselves, but we all know it isn’t that simple. Children are hyper from presents and sweets. Parents are stressed trying to make everything perfect. Throw in different religions, blended families and visiting grandparents and some families face holiday disaster.
It doesn’t have to be that way. By working together, respecting differences and compromising, families can bring back the simple joy found in those Norman Rockwell paintings we all eye so wistfully.
Sometimes people fall in love before they discover their perfect mate practices another religion. Even if they successfully set aside their religious difference to marry, newlyweds may not think about how their separate religions will affect the winter holidays once children arrive.
When Hanukkah and Christmas collide, as they do many years, couples may be left with confusion about what and how to teach their children while honoring the traditions and beliefs of both parents.
"Ideally couples should decide before the children are born, but a lot of people decide when the first baby is born," says Edmund Case, president and publisher of www.interfaithfamily.com, a non-profit publishing and advocacy organization for Jewish people in interfaith relationships. "Some families wait until the children are of school age and some decide even later."
Stacy and Chris Turcotte of Brookfield are a prime example of an interfaith marriage. Stacy, brought up Jewish, and Chris, brought up Roman Catholic, haven’t chosen a particular religion for their 4-year-old twins, Austin and Hannah.
"When Chris and I first talked about having kids, we decided to expose them to multiple religions," Turcotte says.
But that still left the Turcotte family wondering what to do when it came to deciding how to celebrate the holidays they knew as children. Their holidays were further complicated by the fact that the twins’ birthday is Dec. 24.
More often than not, the Turcotte family will spend one night of the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah with Stacy’s family where the twins hear the story of Hanukkah, play the traditional games and eat the traditional food. Then they will celebrate Christmas as a non-religious holiday, without over-emphasizing the Christian themes.
"Some interfaith families feel more comfortable celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday," says Case, who also co-edited "The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook." "They can still have that warm family time and exchange gifts while respecting the beliefs of other members of the family."
But Case advises against celebrating a hybrid holiday known as Chrismukkah, a combination of Hanukkah and Christmas. Because the two holidays are so fundamentally dissimilar and steeped in religious tradition, it can be confusing to children who do not understand the differences.
As for the Turcotte family, managing the December holidays and Austin and Hannah’s birthday has become exhausting.
"The kids are overwhelmed. Our favorite family holiday is Halloween," Turcotte laughs.
Divorce is never easy, but the holidays can magnify any issues parents have. While both parents want to spend time with their children on Christmas day, unless they have a spectacular relationship it’s not likely to happen.
"In most cases, parents need to talk it over," says Karon Phillips Goodman, author of "The Stepmom’s Guide to Simplifying Your Life." "It’s a delicate compromise and parents need to be willing to accommodate each other."
Stephanie Marquez of Romeoville feels stress about Christmas. Her daughter Claudia, 8, splits winter break between her mom and dad. While the divorce was amicable and they accepted the court’s suggestions on custody, Marquez wishes she could spend more of the holiday with her daughter.
"I don’t like it, but that’s the way it is. While we can compromise for weekend visits, neither of us wants to give in for Christmas," she says.
Goodman emphasizes that parents need to take the time to set a good example to their children. Don’t argue and don’t try to outdo the other parent.
"Be a model for the kids. Show them forgiveness, acceptance, tolerance and loyalty," says Goodman.
Goodman stresses that divorce changes a family, but it doesn’t have to be for the worse. Families can learn to talk about what works best for them and realize that it may change from year to year.
"This is a family’s new normal," says Goodman. "Focus on the larger goals for your family to build a happy, and peaceful, life."
Geographically separated families
Even if your nuclear family isn’t divorced and you all celebrate the same holiday, getting your family together with grandparents is getting harder. Years ago, families lived in the same town and seeing everyone at Christmas was easy. But in today’s world where families are spread out all over the country, it’s becoming more and more difficult for kids to see their grandparents while still maintaining traditions at home.
Jamie Busman of Lindenhurst and her husband, Todd, and their children Haley, 6, and Drew, 3, spend their Christmas Eve and Christmas Day driving to Kenosha, Wis., and back—three times.
The Busmans spend Christmas Eve at Jamie’s mom’s house in Kenosha. Then they drive home that night to get ready for Santa’s morning visit. After checking out the stockings, they head back up to her mom’s house for breakfast. In the afternoon they are back home for naptime and then they head back up to Kenosha to her grandma’s house for dinner.
"By the end of the night the kids are exhausted and crabby," says Busman.
Renata Drizin-Stiehl of Chicago understands how Jamie feels. She and her husband Jason used to make the five-hour drive to Belleville to see Jason’s family for Christmas. But once son Julian, now 2, was born, their long drive became more difficult.
"We wanted Julian to wake up in his home and see his own Christmas tree," says Drizin-Stiehl.
Both women acknowledge that distance is the biggest hurdle, one that causes a great deal of anxiety when trying to see grandparents while still enjoying their holiday.
"The holidays aren’t supposed to be about stress," says Drizin-Stiehl. "We’ve asked Jason’s parents to come up and spend Christmas with us instead. It also allows us time to see my mom, too."
Busman agrees that sometimes changes need to be made. She has some ideas to make their holiday a little less chaotic this year.
"I’m not trying to be selfish," she says. "I just want to try another alternative. Maybe I can offer to hold Christmas breakfast this year and my mom could visit us Christmas morning. I still want to go to her house Christmas Eve."
It may not always be possible to make everyone happy over the holidays. But with love and compromise the holidays can lose the stress and regain the joy.
Michelle Sussman is a mom, wife and writer in Bolingbrook whose Christmas celebrations with family change every year. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her Web site at www.michellesussman.com.