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Multiple faiths, cultures play pivotal role in holiday celebrations

By MICHELLE POBLETE | Gannett News Service

Sometimes the holiday can seem like a party to which not everyone is invited. Especially in an interfaith family, where one parent is Christian and the other is non-Christian.

But interfaith families have found ways to bring diverse traditions into the home.

While a Christian might bring a Christmas tree into the house, a non-Christian member might come to like it, too, says Rev. Heather-Kirk Davidoff, spiritual director of the InterFaith Family Project of Greater Washington, D.C.

The IFFP sprouted about eight years ago to provide support for Jewish-Christian families. The project occupies a particular niche in that the parents want to expose their children to both religious traditions. Today about 95 families are registered in the organization.

Members celebrate the holidays in as many variations as there are families, says Kirk-Davidoff, herself part of an interfaith marriage. She is Protestant and a United Church of Christ pastor while her husband of eight years is Jewish.

Some mixed-faith families elevate Hanukkah to be equal with Christmas. Some observe Hanukkah in a more traditional way, others downplay it. For many, the tree is at the center of the negotiation, and having the tree is enough. Other families go deeper. They want to incorporate Christmas Advent or services into their celebration.

Kirk-Davidoff celebrates a more Spartan, almost Grinch-like holiday in her home, while keeping things as spiritual as possible.

There are many such interfaith couples who will celebrate this holiday season.

Invent new traditions

Interfaith marriage is rising in the United States. Exact numbers are hard to compile because the U.S. Census is forbidden to ask questions about religion. But according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, 22 percent of 50,281 households polled reported that they are involved in a religiously diverse union. And the number is increasing, according to an August 2002 article in American Demographics magazine.

“Creating new traditions is part of every relationship,” says Nathan Kline, the inter-religious program specialist for the Chicago office of the National Conference for Community and Justice, an organization advocating interfaith understanding. “But creating new traditions should not come at the expense of old ones.”

Lara Villanueva says it’s been easy to incorporate her husband’s religious traditions because it’s all about family. The 31-year-old pediatrician is Catholic while her husband Pranav Kothari, 29, is Hindu.

“We chose to celebrate both starting from our wedding — both religions, both cultures,” Villanueva says. “People have embraced it. They’re actually excited about it. We’ve been very blessed.”

Villanueva and Kothari, who have been married for about one year, recently celebrated Diwali, the Indian New Year. Unable to travel because of work, they invited people to their home in Silver Spring, Md. But it was toned down from the big celebrations with music and dancing in Detroit, where most of Kothari’s extended family, of more than 100 members, lives.

In family events, they incorporate both cultures, Filipino and Indian. They have dishes from both cultures. Before meals, they will say two prayers — one in English and one in Gujurati.

Villanueva says Kothari’s family always has embraced the American culture while still retaining Hindu-Indian traditions. Kothari grew up celebrating Christmas as a national, or American holiday.

Because so much about the Filipino culture is American, they have a lot in common, she says.

They are expecting to spend Christmas much like they did last year. Both families gather in an “intimate” group of 15 to 20 people. On Christmas Eve, they have an early dinner and tell stories until it’s time to go to midnight Mass. Afterward they open presents, usually staying up until 3 a.m.

Families break new ground

Many faith-based groups are doing a poor job of supporting this growing group, says Rev. Charles Joanides, a Greek Orthodox priest and author of the book "When You Intermarry: A Resource for Inter-Christian, Intercultural Couples, Parents and Families" (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, $14.95). Joanides interviewed more than 400 intermarried couples while doing research for his book. He is forming an outreach ministry for these couples in his own faith group.

Couples are breaking new ground and the faith groups are the ones following them, he says. Lay people have to create their own support groups, like the InterFaith Family Network, because institutional religions have no answers for them, Joanides says.

This group provides a mirror of where we are. "If you understand this group of people then you start to understand where we are in society, in today's multicultural, multireligious society," Joanides says.

Joanides describes a couple he interviewed in Louisiana. They were talking about how to celebrate the New Year. In the South, people often eat black-eyed peas for good luck on New Year's Day. So the family ended up having black-eyed peas, roast lamb and baklava at their meal.

"The variety is indicative of the richness that comes into their lives when they're able to put a positive spin on what's going on rather than looking at a deficit perspective."

In multifaith families, it’s also important to keep the bigger picture in mind.

It’s not either-or, says Rev. Michael Kelley, pastor of St. Martin’s Catholic church in Washington, D.C. Kelley performs about 25 to 30 Catholic-Jewish weddings each year.

“These families have two special ways of celebrating God in their lives. It’s not about best or right,” Kelley says.

Kelley suggests building on existing religious traditions because that’s what children will see in school. In front of the White House ellipse there’s a menorah and a Christmas tree. It makes sense to build on what’s around. And it’s more about being respectful of other people’s traditions.

Kirk-Davidoff encourages parents to go beyond the symbols and doctrinal statements. Why do we tell these stories, and what do they tell us about God?

Interfaith couples have to delve into these whys and wherefores because they have to explain the traditions to their children. She finds it makes each parent more proactive about each of their faiths. And the kids benefit, too.

Some people fear that children brought up with two religions will end up having none or no home, but that has not been her experience.

“It can be so rich. When parents can find things not to fight about but to affirm. People who are different can love each other,” Kirk-Davidoff says. “They’ll be able to translate between cultures, like they can think in two different languages.

“I think of these kids as ambassadors. They’re fluent in Judaism and Christianity, skilled in translations… Perhaps they’ll be the ones to figure out how to solve the problems in the world.”