At first, Peter and Amy Bebergal had a Christmas bush. That bush morphed into a tiny tree over the years. Now, the Jewish-Protestant couple has an entire cupboard full of Christmas ornaments in their Cambridge home.
Increasing numbers of Americans are marrying people of a different faith, according to a 2015 Pew poll. Before 1960, more than 80 percent of Americans found a spouse from within their own religious tradition. Today, that number is down by 20 percent—with more people than ever choosing to find a partner who believes in a higher power, but not necessarily the same one, or ones.
Peter, a Jewish Cambridge resident and author of books including “The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God,” and Amy, who comes from Protestant roots, say that once they had a son they found themselves face to face with questions about religion.
“I think it was more when we got married, but especially having a kid, and sort of the family things becoming even more potent and profound, wanting to give him traditions,” Peter says. “He participates in the various High Holidays, but then again he’s completely in love also with the winter holiday traditions.”
When their son prepared for his bar mitzvah, Peter and Amy sought out a rabbi who could make the service accessible for all of the attendees, many of whom were not Jewish.
“We made sure to say to the rabbi to take what is sort of traditional and try to make it more universal, so the people here can not just … feel more comfortable but to help them understand it,” Peter says. “So that no matter the tradition, there’s still something to value here, to recognize this young man and this new moment in his life.”
Peter became more observant as he grew older. When he met Amy, he was keeping mostly kosher and fasting on Yom Kippur. He had never had any sort of Christmas celebration.
He came to enjoy Christmas because of how his in-laws celebrate and how much his wife’s family loves the holiday, he says.
“She invited me to, of course, be with her family, and it was completely alien to me insofar that I had never experienced that kind of large family gathering with the trimmings, and the food, and the gifts,” he said. “But I have slowly, over the years, really warmed to it and look forward to it. If it had a faith component, it might not be as comfortable, but because that’s not necessarily part of it, it feels more about the family, and season, and the food.”
Rabbi Jillian Cameron, director of Interfaith Family Boston, explains that the logistics and celebration of holidays can be tricky for interfaith couples because of how much emotion, particularly nostalgia, is involved.
“Nostalgia can be definitely difficult because it’s hard to pin down and figure out where it comes from,” Cameron says. “But I think the joy of coming from two different religious backgrounds is that you have two very different options, and I often tell couples, whether it’s nostalgic or not … you can create a tradition that has pieces of both that is uniquely yours.”
Another challenge can be how to raise a child, especially when grandparents start asking hard questions about what faith their grandchildren will follow.
“There’s a lot of fear that kids will be confused, and kids are not as easy to confuse as people think they are,” Cameron says, adding that part of her job is explaining just that to grandparents or advising interfaith couples how to talk to them themselves.
Cameron emphasizes that there is no “right” way to navigate a family with multiple religions. “Interfaith families do a million different things,” she says.
For Joe Aiello, who is Catholic, and his wife Allison Berg, who is Jewish, the holidays have offered opportunities to learn and share the traditions they cherish. Their Christmas tree, covered in blue and silver garlands, partners a nearby menorah in their Cambridge home.
“Our Christmas tree every December, it has the Catholic ornaments wrapped up in blue and silver,” Aiello explains. “There are ways you can really enjoy both sides.”
Aiello, who attends Sacred Heart in East Cambridge, served as an altar boy and a Eucharistic minister in his Catholic upbringing and went to one of his first Jewish services with Berg at Northeastern while a graduate student there.
“My knowledge of Judaism originally was [from] high school 20 years ago, taking a world religion class my sophomore or junior year kind of thing,” he says, describing his all-boys Catholic school.
Overall, navigating an interfaith relationship well can come down to being clear, Cameron argues.
“Being explicit is really important,” Cameron says. “Couples have these conversations in passing, and frankly I would recommend this for any couple, not just an interfaith couple. Having these conversations [is] really important, and any couple that I marry, and I don’t just marry interfaith couples, it’s important to be specific about it.”
Cameron, a Salem resident who hosts conversations with interfaith couples in Greater Boston and advises them, grew up in an interfaith family herself, with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother.
Her advice to interfaith couples during all seasons?
“Something I talk a lot about is shared values. I think really to any relationship it’s key … in order to be in a relationship and think about moving forward seriously, you have to have shared values.”
Aiello and Berg, now together for more than a decade, found their families to be welcoming and understanding of the balance of the holidays.
“A couple years ago, Hanukkah was extremely early and it was near Thanksgiving, and my mom, wanting to be the inclusive mother-in-law, borrowed a menorah,” Aiello says. “And when we were home for Thanksgiving, my mom got trinkets each day, just for my wife, each day when we were there. It was actually a good chunk of Hanukkah.”
Aiello and Berg agreed with Cameron’s advice that what’s most important is finding a person you share values with.
“It’s more about the person than the religion, honestly,” Berg says.
“I would say to enjoy it—depending on how religious a couple it is, it really is the same basis, all holidays whether the celebratory holidays or the very solemn holidays, they all have the same basis,” Aiello adds. “I would say enjoy them both. You can find that balance.”