Strategies to Help Intermarried Couples Celebrate the Holidays
Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT
Research indicates that holiday seasons bring added challenges and stress into our lives. Intermarried couples and their families, because of their different religious and cultural backgrounds, are especially at risk when holidays come. The purpose of this article is twofold:
1. to explore some of the reasons why intermarried couples face additional challenges during the holidays.
2. to provide some useful suggestions to help them negotiate these challenges during this year’s Lenten and Paschal season.
Why do intermarried couples face additional challenges during the holidays?
* The greater the differences in religious backgrounds, the more potential challenges couples may encounter. For example, couples with two spouses from different Christian backgrounds are likely to encounter fewer challenges around the holidays than couples with a Christian spouse and a non-Christian spouse. One Christian spouse married to a Hindu put it this way. “It’s not easy celebrating Christmas and Easter…I yearn to celebrate a traditional Christmas and Easter…. My husband tries to understand, but I also know this need will never completely be met…. It’s okay, but it also makes me feel sad.”
* Similarly, the greater the differences in cultural backgrounds, the greater the chances that challenges will emerge. For instance, spouses from different European backgrounds are likely to encounter fewer challenges than couples who have more varied cultural backgrounds. One newlywed spouse with a Chinese background who was married to a second generation Greek-American offered the following observation: “We are deeply in love with one another, but there are some things we can’t always share – especially around many of the holidays. Perhaps in time we’ll create a hybrid experience, but thus far it seems we’re still trying to figure things out.”
* The level of connection each spouse has to his/her religious background can influence the number and intensity of challenges. Spouses with high levels of connection will experience more challenges around the holidays than couples who have nominal connections to their religious backgrounds. The following observations illustrate this point. “We’re not particularly religious, so the religious holidays don’t necessary cause us many problems…. I imagine it’s difficult for couples from different religions if they both want to follow their religious traditions.”
* Similarly, the level of connection each spouse has to his/her cultural background can influence the number and intensity of challenges. One spouse’s comments illustrate this point. “We’re both first generation – he has a Serbian background and I have a Mexican background. That means that we have strong feelings for our ethnic backgrounds. This makes it hard for us. This is especially true around the holidays.”
Despite these unique couple dynamics, most couples I’ve interviewed have successfully worked through the special challenges holiday seasons bring into their lives. Here are some of the strategies that have worked for them. Perhaps they will prove helpful to you.
Communicate with one another. Before each holiday arrives, talk with each other about your needs and expectations surrounding your observance and celebration of the particular holiday. One spouse stated, “Don’t assume that you’re always on the same page regarding the decorations, ethnic traditions and church services…. We found this out the hard way the first year we were married. We failed to have much conversation and ended up arguing about almost everything. He wanted to fast; I didn’t. He wanted to attend the Greek Orthodox Church; I didn’t. He expected to be with his family; I expected to be with mine.”
Respect and accept one another. Mutual respect and acceptance are also important. One spouse’s remarks help explain why. “I’m Greek Orthodox... He’s Jewish. I don’t expect him to understand what I’m feeling and experiencing during Easter and the Christmas season, but I do expect him to be respectful, and he is. I think we’d have to live apart around religious celebrations if we weren’t respectful toward one another…. By the way, even though he’s not very religious, I’m aware of his religious and ethnic traditions and do my best to be respectful. Without this level of acceptance and respect I’m afraid conflict would replace the peace we’ve found related to our religious and ethnic differences.”
Emphasize your similarities. Intermarried spouses repeatedly stated that they tend to emphasize their similarities and de-emphasize their differences – especially around the holidays. One spouse from a Protestant background stated, “His Greek Orthodox religious background has many beautiful rituals and traditions. But as beautiful as they may be, they don’t speak to me like my own religious background. So, we don’t spend a lot of time comparing and contrasting whose background is better…. We spend our time celebrating what we share in common and leave the differences alone.”
Educate one another. Some spouses have found the holidays to be opportunities for sharing their unique traditions with each other in order to help each respective partner deepen his/her understanding of the meaning and significance of his/her spouse’s religious and cultural traditions. This approach tends to diffuse potential misunderstandings and enrich holiday celebrations. One spouse’s observation illustrates this point. “I’m Southern Baptist, and my husband’s from Greece…. It’s traditional for many people in the south to have black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. But my husband didn’t care for black-eyes peas until I told him it was a way that southerners expressed best wishes to one another for the New Year. After that, he warmed up to the tradition and even helps prepare them each year – Greek style, of course.”
Work through extended-family challenges. Extended family can sometimes present challenges. The following illustrates this point. “The first year we were married, we went to Spiro’s house for Easter Dinner…. I decided to make a Jell-O mold shaped in the form of an Easter egg. It was always part of our Easter table…. When I presented it to his mother, she thanked me and placed it on the corner of the table, almost underneath the rolls. I was hurt, and I told Spiro the next day. He apologized and stated that while Jell-O molds were not part of his family’s Easter Dinner, my Jell-O mold would be in the center of our table in years to come…. I know this is silly, but his comments touched my heart.”
Emphasize the positive. One Lutheran spouse I interviewed described some of the struggles she and her Greek Orthodox partner were having around Easter time. Her remarks highlight a strategy that has proven useful to most intermarried couples. In particular, she stated: “After getting married, I was surprised to discover that Greeks use the Old Calendar to establish a date for Easter. As a result, during the first few years of marriage I resented the fact that I had to revisit Easter with my husband a month or so later. This caused a great deal of unrest between us, which lingered for several years. It wasn’t until our first child arrived that I was able to acquire a different perspective. One day, when I was preparing candy for the Easter bunny, my son innocently remarked: “You know mommy. I’m really lucky. The Easter Bunny comes to our home twice a year! That remark was the beginning of a new way for me to see our differences. As time has passed, I no longer see things from a deficit perspective. Today I see our differences as enriching our lives and the lives of our children. These days I try to emphasize the positive.”
Accept that disagreements are part of the territory. Differences that create conflict are part of the territory for intermarried couples. When differences surface and conflict follows, couples should try and remember that disagreements around holiday traditions are inevitable, and they do not necessarily portend negative outcomes. In most cases, these differences afford intermarried couples opportunities to shape two very different backgrounds into a common experience that is mutually satisfying for both spouses and their family.
One intermarried partner’s observations whose background is Caribbean illustrates these points nicely. “Before marriage we failed to engage in any conversation related to our different backgrounds. That changed once we got married and we started trying to figure out which traditions we would integrate into our holiday observances. This created a lot of drama and conflict. Fortunately, at some point we both realized that the drama and conflict weren’t getting us anywhere, and we were able to accept the fact that it would take some time for us to figure things out. Fifteen years later things are considerably better, and we’ve figured things out. We believe our lives and our children’s lives have been enriched by our efforts to combine our two very different backgrounds in a common family experience.”
Seek help when you get stuck. Sometimes intermarried couples will get stuck; no matter how hard they try, they cannot work through a disagreement. When lingering disagreements exist that trigger counterproductive arguments, it is best to consult your pastor or a professional couple counselor for help. Waiting and hoping for circumstances to change is a strategy that can often do more harm than good. So, if issues related to the holidays have remained unresolved and are threatening your Paschal celebration once again, it is likely time to seek some outside help for a second opinion.
Regularly turn to God for help. Thus far, I’ve talked about how intermarried couples can work together to ensure that the challenges they face do not seriously unsettle their holiday celebrations. However, I’ve chosen to save the best suggestion for last. In order to find some common ground during the holidays, almost without exception, the couples I’ve met with have stated that prayer and God’s love often made a distinct positive difference in their efforts to get beyond the kinds of challenges addressed in this article. So, this year, if you happen to encounter challenges, don’t forget to turn to God regularly as you look forward to celebrating the holidays. His life-giving, life-creating presence will make a difference.
Whenever possible, I encourage couples to consider becoming single- church couples. This option removes a level of complexity that has the potential to create challenges and problems for couples. However, for many reasons which I will not detail here, this is often not an option.For those who are intermarried, this article has suggested that stress around the holidays can be further exacerbated when intermarried couples underestimate the issues that may surface surrounding their religious, ethnic and cultural differences. When these issues are underestimated and not worked through, family members at all levels are disappointed, and emotional distance replaces the festive, life-changing, life-sustaining nature of a given holiday. Some of the strategies listed in this article should help ameliorate the stress and conflict that often emerge when couples from different religious and cultural traditions celebrate the holidays.