Interfaith Families in the Holidays

by Jesse Galef

As if celebrating the holidays isn’t hectic enough for most people, we atheists have to decide which days to celebrate and how.  Thanksgiving and Veteran’s Day are easy ones – they’re good secular values.  I celebrate the secular version of Christmas – celebrating the spirit of giving – but I often have to explain my views to confused onlookers.

I can imagine it would be even tougher for an interfaith couple.  The Washington Post is hosting a forum to discuss the issue.

Perhaps your atheist husband wants that manger scene off the mantel. Your Hindu wife is uncomfortable with the Hebrew blessings before dinner. Your Muslim mother-in-law doesn’t want her grandkids sitting on Santa’s lap.

The holidays can be a minefield for interfaith couples, unearthing disparities that lay mercifully buried throughout the rest of the year. Because the tree isn’t just about the tree, of course. Like the menorah, or Iftar feasts at sundown during Ramadan, it’s about family and ritual, identity and culture.

Apparently 25% of married adults in America are married to someone of a different faith – a number that goes up to 37% if you count different protestant denominations.

Do you think it’s easier or harder when one of the pair is an atheist?  In that situation it’s not just a disagreement about which religion to believe, but a rejection of all religion.

What would you do?

So Much Wrong, So Little Time
Atheists at CPAC
Trying On Atheism
Everybody's a Christian
About Jesse Galef

Jesse is a career atheist, and is currently Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. Before that, he worked for the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association. He also blogs about science, philosophy, and rationality at Measure of Doubt with his sister Julia.
(The views expressed are not representing the Secular Student Alliance or any other organization.)

  • Boomcoach

    For myself, although I am an atheist, I do not mind a creche on the mantle, any more than I mind the pagan symbols of the tree, the holly or the mistletoe.. People know my lack of belief and they rarely challenge my use of a few Christian symbols, because then I point out their own use of pagan ones. I tell them that the carols (which I enjoy), the various symbologies are, like Santa, just illusions that are part of the tradition.

  • Nick

    Well, that’s obvious.

    You celebrate the greatest holiday–the one with the most meaning and significance–and make that the focal point of your family’s celebrations. I’m speaking, of course, of Halloween. From singing Halloween carols (Monster Mash, Ghostbusters, etc.) to decorating your bare, leafless poplars with their scraggly branches looking like the desiccated fingers of the deceased clawing into this world from the infinite darkness of the great beyond, it’s a wondrous time for the whole family. Also, hey, candy.

    Seriously though, I’ve been atheist for two or three years now, and I still celebrate Christmas with my devout Catholic parents and likely agnostic brother, and we have a great time of it. I suppose it all depends on how prominent the religious aspects of the celebration become, and whether they trump the idea of the holiday as an opportunity to be with family and have a good time.

    • puck

      Hey man, Halloween is sacred, very sacred. It to me is the most important holiday. It is the night we get to pretend to be someone else, a creature of imagination, get candy and party hard. It to me is how I think Christians view Easter or Christmas. I start planning for it in may. I don’t appreciate your sarcasm and yeah Im being fucking serious.

  • Sundog

    My family ranges from devout to Atheist (though as far as I know I’m the only one of the latter “out of the closet”), and we just all try to get along. I don’t get asked to Midnight Mass by my Catholic cousins, they don’t get invited to the Hanukkah celebrations by my Jewish ones. But we all get together on Boxing Day to celebrate being a family.

  • exChristy

    I am a recently de-converted evangelical Christian and my husband is still in the faith. This will be our first Christmas, since my awakening. I think it will be fine. I have no problem with going to church together for carols, the Christmas story, etc. It’s pretty innocuous. Like listening to a Greek myth, or any other story I do not take literally.

    I think it would be much harder if we each believed in different faiths. It’s much easier for an atheist or agnostic to go along with the holiday practices of the believing partner than it would be for a devout member of another faith to, I would think. But, I guess that depends on the atheist. I think someone who abhors all things religious would cause just as much conflict as someone with a different faith.

    That said, I have yet to find out how things will go. I’m just looking forward to not feeling guilty this year for using pagan symbols!

  • Kodie

    I have happily avoided spending Christmas with my family for a number of years. I’m not against the holiday – last year I put up a tree. I’m not married and don’t have any children, so of course I would probably like to do something with them if I did. My problem is not that it’s a religious holiday and my family is not religious. My favorite Christmas carols are religious ones (they sound prettier), and one time, I made a creche with a wooden clementine crate and some dolls, action figures, and figurines, and put some beads on it that looked like stars. I don’t think I have the picture scanned, but Jesus was a teddy bear, Joseph was Superman, and two of the wise men were Smurfette and Jiminy Cricket. It was funny. My boyfriend at the time who lived with me grew up Catholic and he didn’t see anything wrong with it, but he’s also not as whimsical as I am.

    I think it has the potential to be a good holiday, but I don’t like to have to spend it with my parents on the reason that my mother is a hysterical woman, and for various reasons, I feel “the true spirit” of Christmas has been tainted by her petty crap. She tries too hard and misses the point, and my family is dysfunctional, she gets passive-aggressive, and then someone explodes, and then she cries and the day is ruined. I want to love my family and be close with them and value spending time with them, but Christmas just puts too much pressure to be some fantasy of a perfect family for her, just for one day of the year, can’t we look like a postcard of Christmas?, and we don’t measure up, we can’t relax, and it always turns out horrible! The worst part these days is I’m “alone” on Christmas, which I do and don’t mind. It is just a day, like today is a day, and yet my mother has been difficult to convince that I prefer it this way to the mess it tends to be. I’d rather have my own family, or at least a less tense version of her family. If anyone who doesn’t drink needed a drink, it’s mom. If we could spend time together on any other day, there’s like a 90% decrease in the amount of hostility because there’s no pressure.

    Unfortunately, I can’t get out of it this year. I have been hosting Thanksgiving for a few years and my parents and grandmother always come – it’s fine, except last year I cut myself, twice. There’s still fighting, my mom is still a drag as a guest and my dad’s no help. I have to remember why I don’t like to have a Christmas tree before I get sentimental again – it dries out and I have to put all the ornaments away, all by myself. My sister’s mother-in-law bought her and her husband plane tickets home for Christmas and I’m obligated to go down to meet their baby, and they’ve scheduled the christening for the day after, so I have to show up ON Xmas day. I’m a terrible person for wishing her MiL would not interfere with my Christmas plans! I can meet their son another time, except they live across the country. People and their assumptions, that I want my nephew christened like a hole in the head if that means I have to go home for Christmas this year. I really don’t care – I think they are just going along with the program to appease and are not themselves religious, I just think he could wait to be christened until January.

    I guess that doesn’t answer all the questions, but I think the religious parts, much like Boomcoach, are stories that make me feel festive about Christmas. I don’t think I would marry someone who had strong religious feelings to begin with. We went to my ex’s (same one who didn’t mind about my manger scene) family for Xmas one year, and I think this is the morning there was a huge earthquake in Iran. His mother was at the kitchen window looking out at the snow, and said in a dreamy tone, “this is god’s country.” That bothered me a lot! She’s quite religious but even so, isn’t awfully vocal about the Lord this and that. To look out on a snowy landscape in a rural area – yes, nice to look at. To count her blessings, as it were, to have her family with her for Christmas in the house she’d lived in for over 40 years, ok, but to call it god’s country, blech. Really seemed distasteful. Religious people can be sort of a land mine like that, but there’s no right or wrong season for it.

  • SteveE

    I celebrate christmas as the season of giving and family. My family never practiced religion so it was always the season of giving and family. Once I realized I was atheist, nothing changed, I just didn’t want mom’s manger when that time comes. My sister can have it.

  • claidheamh mor

    What would I do? How about an answer consisting of what I actually did?

    I have (all of my life, so far, open to change) stayed single.

  • Cheryl

    Clearly, we should all just celebrate Festivus. Who’s up for the Airing of Grievances? Or was it the Feats of Strength that comes first?

  • Siberia

    My whole family (a whooping three people) is of believers; I’m the only atheist.
    We celebrate thusly:
    - presents
    - great food
    - a garland
    - some colorful lights
    - a tree, when my niece is born and can grok it.

    Thus we honor the One True God(tm), Capitalism.

  • Lee

    Well, this will be our 1st year celebrating christmas as an “interfaith” couple, so we’ll see. I’ve recently returned to agnosticism after 20 years as an evangelical christian. I’ve been married for 15 years. My wife is still hanging on to her faith. I think the biggest contention for us will be and has been what we teach our kids, ages 8 and 6. She, of course, thinks she has a divine mandate to indoctrinate them with christianity. I have a serious problem with that now. I want to teach them to think critically and independently. I have a real hard time with just standing by while she tries to fill their young impressionable minds with crap that can derail their lives. We’re really struggling as a couple who love each other how to work this out. At any rate, as someone else said, it will by nice to just enjoy the season w/o feeling obligated to spiritualize everything or feel bad about celebrating the secular aspects of it.

    • Jesse Galef

      So say we all.

    • exChristy


      The other day I told my husband, given the rate of children who grow up to leave the faith, wouldn’t it be a good idea for us to teach them the religious and non-religious reasons for doing (or not doing) x. In my case, I was talking about waiting to have sex until they are emotionally ready, but it goes for anything. We need to, as responsible parents, teach our kids to be good adults. If the only context they have for making good decisions is the Bible, where will they be if they grow up to reject that?

      This worked for me, so I thought I would share. He told me I had an excellent point.

      I have been worrying how my leaving the faith will play out for my marriage. It’s comforting to know that I am not the only one going through it.

      • Lee

        Thanks for the advice exChristy, that’s a good way to put it. I’m trying to get my wife to get past her assumption that the only way to “good” character is through bible study. It’s tough. She came home today with a devotional that she wants to do with the kids. I said that’s fine as long as I get equal time to present things from my point of view. She said “But this is teaching character!” I’m like, “Why must you always assume that you need to believe in god before you can build character?” But I know for her to even consider the possibility puts her whole worldview on shaky ground. I think it all comes down to fear. I should remember that. It took me a long time to muster the courage to really question my “faith”.

        • Matt D

          exChristy and Lee,

          I’ve never believed in god, yet managed to marry the daughter of a church minister, who has over time become very fundamental and literal in her views (eg Genesis is true, evolution is false).

          Like Lee’s wife, she acts on her “divine mandate” (love that term BTW) and fills their littles sponge-like minds with piles of garbage. I have started to lay the seeds with my 4yo, but my 2 and-a-half yo is still too little.

          We’ve been together almost 14 years and have been moving apart emotionally for about 10years. We now have 2 little kids and our own business and a mortgage. The business and the mortgage can be undone, but the kids a diffrent matter.

          Dont know that I have any advice for you both, other than be prepared for things to get very difficult in the years ahead. My experience is that polar opposite views of our existence are very hard to reconcile under the one roof.

          good luck

  • Woodwose

    As an atheist with a spouse who’s not, we happily celebrate every holiday, but not necessarily as Holy Days. Any event which sees friends or family together for companionship, happiness, food and drink is open to me and mine. This is a decided advantage over many folks moored to a single religious or cultural tradition. We join Jewish friends at a multitude of happy and sad events, Islamic friends at the Eid, Hindus at Diwali, Christians at Christmas, Scots on Burns Night, Wiccans at the solstice, the Zurich Bean Festival in Ontario, and Octoberfest. Then again there’s Darwin Day, Pi Day and other events that mainstream folk don’t usually touch.

  • objectifier

    My second wife is a Unitarian Universalist Minister. She kept trying to convince me that I would make a good unitarian because they were so inclusive of different beliefs. I actually find that more confusing than fundamentalist that hold one set of deeply held beliefs. She had members who believed in god, members who didn’t believe in god, believed in Jesus, didn’t believe in Jesus, believers in Judaism, Wicca and various versions of Druid or pagan beliefs. This made UU a good home for many couples of different backgrounds though there was a distinct overtone of anger at traditional Christian faiths they had been raised in. I told her that one of the best things about being an atheist was sleeping in on Sunday mornings. I also found some of the anger at their former beliefs unsettling. They re-wrote christian hymns to sanitize them of references to JC or god. While atheist, I harbor no anger towards the churchs I was raised in. Our marriage didn’t last long, but religion wasn’t the cause of the break up. One of the things I had liked about her was that we held very different beliefs on a wide variety of subjects and we could argue them without getting angry. It was really one of the things that attracted me to her.

    We celebrated christmas in a very secular way at home and I left her to deal with the religious aspects at church.

  • Leo

    I’m lucky. My family is not religious but we have always celebrated Christmas as a time to give to each other and eat amazingly good food, and we’ve put a lot of our own family tradition into the day. My partner and his family are not religious either, so Christmas with them is pretty easy too. For me it’s always been about finding the perfect presents to show friends and family that I care about them.

    The only mention of Jesus I can remember at a family Christmas was 2 years ago when we had a fantastic wine my parents had picked up in France, because of the hilarious english used in the translation of the blurb on the back: “… making this wine as smooth as the Christ-Child in velvet pants” (funnier in the UK as pants=underpants here). I think we may have toasted the Christ-Child that year, and that wine was pretty damn smooth (mmmmm, sacrilicious).

    I don’t know how I’d deal with it if my partner was religious. When I was a kid I would happily go along with other people’s religious traditions as they didn’t hurt me and it was the easiest way not to offend (I remember going to Catholic church one Sunday morning with a friend whose house I’d slept over at the night before.) I think I’d resent it if Jesus took over my Christmas, although if it was for someone I loved, maybe I’d be bigger than that.

  • puck

    Im Capitalist when it comes to Christmas. As long as I get paid, i’ll do as my parents wish. My dad pays me to go to mass on important days, like Christmas. Last year I got $140 for a one and half hour catholic mass. I don’t enjoy christmas though, to many expectations and to much family. My memories are of christmas eve, playing chess in front of the fire. My first scotch with my dad happened there. Watching the movies we got till 5am, we get to open presents after midnight mass. The mass I don’t enjoy, the music is bad, my ipod is normally confiscated by my brother, beforehand. Do to my history with Roman Catholicism and my lack of faith. i don’t pray, sing accept or give blessing, receive communion, this was negotiated to allow me back in with my family present until i reconcile my self with the faith as they put it. I would be happier staying at home and baking for when they get back or putting out presents or something. Christmas day is worse, we have a large extended family that gets together every christmas. This year their is 48 of us, the fewest I can remember having is 18. It is crowded, drunken time with people that don’t like me and I don’t like them. So like I said, I am a capitalist at christmas, I expect to be paid for my participation.