Interfaith couples must find ways to get out of 'December dilemma'

December 24, 1992|By Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Christmas, a time of peace and good will for many, can be season of anxiety and tension for growing numbers of interfaith couples.

When Christians, Jews, Muslims or Buddhists intermarry, they are faced by numerous problems including what many call "the December dilemma" of whether to celebrate Christmas.

Some 700,000 Jewish-Christian couples in the United States must decide how to observe Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights that also falls in December.

"There are no easy answers," said Joan Hawxhurst, 28, of Boulder, Colo., who publishes Dovetail, a newsletter for interfaith families such as her own.

"But we think interfaith couples can come up with their own individual ways of how to celebrate their religious faiths," said Ms. Hawxhurst, a United Methodist whose husband, Steve Bertram, 29, is Jewish.

People in mixed marriages must be willing, perhaps more than others, to roll with the punches. But even with such willingness, she said in a telephone interview, surprises will occur.

Ms. Hawxhurst knows from experience.

When they were married two years ago, around Christmas, the two had no trouble in agreeing on how to deal with the holidays.

"We decided to have a Jewish home. No Christmas tree," she said. But she was not prepared for her own emotional reaction.

"We got up on Christmas morning, visited a shelter for the homeless, and when we came back home, I started crying. I was incredibly sad," she recalled.

"That really got to my husband."

So the two decided to compromise, and this year both Christmas and Hanukkah are being celebrated.

But for Mr. Bertram, raised as a Conservative Jew, having a Christmas tree in his home is a new experience.

"I grew up in Rochester, N.Y., with Frosty the Snowman and all the things that surround Christmas," he said. "We didn't celebrate Christmas, but I had a strong identity as a Jew and felt special because of that."

Mr. Bertram, despite long discussions before the two married, said he never anticipated that his wife would react so emotionally to not having a tree and other Christmas symbols.

"When I came up and found her crying, there was nothing I could say for a long time," he said. "I felt completely inadequate."

Couples of different faiths, Mr. Bertram said, must be willing to experiment and make adjustments based on what is best for both partners.

Christians who marry adherents of other religious faiths may experience similar conflicts, said Bertie Abdel-Hafiz of Roanoke, a West Texas-born Baptist wed to a Muslim.

"When my husband and I first got married, we didn't have a tree or anything," she said. "I felt very, very empty."

"He saw my long face, and decided we should have a tree," she said. But she also takes part with her Egyptian-born husband, Gamal Abdel-Hafiz, in the celebration of Muslim holidays, such as Ramadan, the monthlong fasting to mark the first revelation of the Koran, the Islamic scriptures.

But another Muslim-Christian couple, Esad and Wanda Sipilovic of Fort Worth, agreed from the beginning of their marriage 28 years ago that Christmas would not be celebrated.

"From the very first day we have understood that I am the husband and that [Islam] will be the faith I celebrate," said Esad Sipilovic, 52, a native of what is now strife-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. "But we also understood that I would never ask her to change her faith."

Wanda Sipilovic, 43, remains a Christian by choice, but her faith is private and she does not attend church except to go to weddings and funerals.

"I think my husband would feel hurt if I did start going to church regularly, but he wouldn't stop me from doing it," she said.

The couple have five children in their 20s who follow the Muslim faith. Three are married to Christians.

But there are interfaith marriages in which both spouses remain quite active in their respective religions.

Naji Hamideh, 53, a Muslim, whose wife, Sue, 46, is a United Methodist, said his family usually has a Christmas tree and his wife is free to celebrate the season.

"My wife can sing Christmas carols and I go to mosque on Friday," said Hamideh, a Fort Worth resident. "I have a lot of Christian friends, and we go to their house and tell them, 'Merry Christmas.' They congratulate us when we have the Muslim holiday at the end of Ramadan."

In the case of Len and Rose-Marie Schweitzer, he is a former president of Congregation Beth-El, a Reform Jewish temple in Fort Worth, and she is an active member of St. Matthew Lutheran Church. The couple attends almost every temple Sabbath service.

Len Schweitzer rarely attends church, but the two congregations have a tradition of having joint worship services during the Thanksgiving holiday.

"We were really a rarity [as an interfaith couple] at one time," he said. "Now 50 percent of the kids in our Sunday school are from mixed marriages."

While raising three sons in the Jewish faith, the couple were able to work out compromises.

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