Growing up as the daughter of a Christian mother and a Jewish father, Ruth Lednicer says she loved Christmas - or at least the tinsel and trappings.
She had little idea that it had to do with Jesus. But "I developed strict rituals around the holiday, forcing my poor dad to read 'The Night Before Christmas' every Christmas Eve, with stockings hung a certain way," she says.
This despite the fact that her father had been a Jewish refugee from World War II.
"It was a bit confusing in adolescence," she says of December at the Lednicer house in Evansville, Ind., "feeling you weren't quite sure where you fit in."
These emotions are common in families where parents come from two different religious backgrounds, and there is evidence that the number of such families is growing. How parents handle the December holidays is one barometer of how successful they are the rest of the year in bridging their faiths and giving children a clear sense of identity. The stakes are high: Divorce rates are said to be higher for interfaith couples than for those of similar backgrounds; families often have difficulty finding a supportive religious community that doesn't have an agenda.
For some interfaith families, it's easier to keep harmony by not getting too specific with the theology.
Karen McCarthy, a psychologist in the Denver area, is a Roman Catholic married to a Jew. She and her husband have a three-year-old, and they're educating her in both religious traditions. "We try not to get hung up on the 'Jesus as God' part," she says, "instead we emphasize what Jesus' life was about, and the commonality in both our religions, such as the importance of being a good person."
That approach works best for Jewish-Christian couples, whose beliefs, at the core, are similar. In fact, Jewish-Christian matches are the most common interfaith relationships in North America. Jewish organizations estimate that 40 to 50 parent of Jews marry non-Jews.
Mixed marriage is rarer for devout Muslims, according to Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on Islamic Relations in Washington. Men may marry Jewish or Christian women with the expectation that children will be raised Muslim, but Muslim women are expected to marry inside the faith.
Intermarriage that involves Hinduism and Buddhism - two Eastern teachings that are less familiar to Westerners and may be less accessible because of language barriers - is still unusual but is more accepted than a generation ago.
Hindus and Buddhists are not as rigid on dogma as most Christian denominations, and where Christians see one path to godliness - through Christ - "Hindu philosophy acknowledges all paths to God as equal," says Anup Pandey of Albany, N.Y.
Mr. Pandey, who was born in India, and his American wife, Stacy Morris, were married in two ceremonies - Hindu and Roman Catholic. When the priest asked the couple beforehand what their children would be, Pandey told him: "They will be both - or all."
That kind of openness and optimism can carry an interfaith couple through the early years of marriage and past the first holidays - until children come along. Then parents often run smack into the realities of conflicting traditions.
Interfaith families say that the holidays go more smoothly if they focus on the children, and if parents fight the urge to recapture specific traditions from their own childhoods. Several families interviewed said that, when kids got older, it helped to have a pre-holiday family meeting to talk about expectations, discuss what worked and didn't from the previous year, and to get a feeling for how the children's religious ideas had matured since last holiday season.
The hard reality of interfaith families at the holidays is that it's often exhausting for the parents: They get worn out going to church, going to temple, cooking and decorating for two sets of holidays and entertaining two sets of families. As Eileen Smith, a Catholic married to a Jew in Chicago, puts it, "We don't do soccer, we do religion."
For many families, going the "both" route, as Ms. Smith's family does, is simply not feasible. They opt for an amalgam of traditions and customs, or seek neutral ground in a Unitarian-Universalist church. Others make the hard decision to emphasize a single religious teaching in the home. Interestingly, in quite a number of interfaith families, the Christian partner agrees to raise the children as Jewish, or the children themselves choose Judaism.
Mary Rosenbaum, a Catholic married to a Jew, is executive director of the Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources. She explains that it's easier to for a Christian to accept Judaism than the other way around. "There isn't anything in Jewish prayers or symbols that Christians would oppose, since Christianity grew out of Judaism."
For children, the issue is more complicated. Ms. Lednicer says she is still straddling the fence. "To choose one faith over the other is to deny one side of my family and potentially hurt one parent. Given how much of my father's family was killed in the Holocaust, I feel a duty to carry on a tradition that survived despite attempts to quash it," she says. "It would be a shame if it all fell by the wayside because we couldn't be bothered to keep it alive."
With religion being such serious business, it's not easy for parents and kids to lighten up. Elizabeth Marvin is a first-year student at Illinois State University. Her mom was raised a Christian and her dad is Jewish. The family worships together at synagogue, but they also decorate for Christmas - with a touch of humor, Ms. Marvin says. "Our tree is topped with a star of David, and we have other ornaments such as a plastic bagel and a figure from 'Fiddler on the Roof.' We all have stockings - only my dad's is blue and white and says 'Shalom,' instead of being red-and-white with a reindeer."
Adult children of interfaith families say that, despite the challenges, they wouldn't trade their upbringing for anything. "I loved being from a mixed-religion household," says Rachel Maurer of Albuquerque, N.M. "Sure, at times I felt like a misfit, but I think it broadened my outlook and allowed me to cross social boundaries that other people cannot."
Marvin echoes those comments. "I'm not so threatened by other people asserting their religious beliefs," she says.
Taking their cue from parents, children of interfaith families often glide in and out of different religious realms with the ease of a bilingual person switching between two languages, says Smith. They realize, she says, "that there is not one language or one way to the Almighty."
Kate and Micahla Cohen, the teenage daughters of a Christian mother and a Jewish father in Minneapolis, say they feel fortunate to have two perspectives on religion. "I like that I can talk about both," Micahla says, although she has chosen Judaism and is studying for her bat mitzvah. A bar or bat mitzvah is a rite of passage that includes reading the Torah and taking one's place in the Jewish community.
Ms. McCarthy the psychologist says, "We do well when we ask ourselves, 'What's good for our daughter?' It's important to send a clear, consistent message of love and support whatever you choose to do, especially during the holidays."
"Faith is a gift," says Smith. "We can't dictate how children arrive at it, we can only give them the tools."
INTERFAITH FAMILY RESOURCES
* Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources: www.mich.com/~dovetail/ (800) 530-1596
* Jewish-Catholic Couples' Dialogue Group of Chicago: (708) 660-9503
* Center for Jewish Identity/B'nai B'rith: (202) 857-6536
* National Jewish Outreach: www.njop.org/
* Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations: (617) 742-2100
* United Church of Christ: www.ucc.org/
* Interchurch Organization: www.aifw.org/aif/aif.htm