Lowered household stress around Dec. 25 has been one of the many unexpected benefits of interfaith marriage. My husband kind of lucked out. I didn't enter into holy matrimony with any preconceived notions on whether a Christmas tree should be topped with a star or an angel. I do not have a favorite Christmas carol or a strong opinion on what Santa better leave in a stocking. I inherited secret family recipes for kugel and rugelach, not for world-class gingerbread men or fruitcake.
But for those couples trying to merge long-established Christmas customs and traditions into one family, tensions over seasonal trappings really can take some of the joy out of "Joyeux Noel."
For Suzanne Walaszek, a Madison-based photographer's assistant, getting out the decorations for Christmas is something she looks forward to all year long. "My mom, who died when I was 18, was a huge decorator for the holidays, and I feel I am honoring her with all of this," she says, referring to the impressive collection of decorative snowmen, elves and seasonal snow globes she intends to put up in the next couple of weeks.
Her husband, Art, though, the residency director for UW-Madison's department of psychiatry, is less of a Christmas guy. "He enjoys cooking Thanksgiving dinner," says Walaszek, "but just as soon as the leftovers are put into the refrigerator, there is a clear changing of the guard."
According to Walaszek, her husband pretty much sits back and lets her and their two daughters (Maddy, 11, and Lucy, 9) do what they want when it comes to Christmas decorating in their home. "He hasn't fully embraced all we do, but he's definitely come to accept it," she says.
As it turns out, there was one Christmas tradition he did feel strongly about. Art wanted a real tree.
According to 2011 Nielsen Research data, U.S. households planned to purchase approximately 21.6 million real trees and 12.9 million artificial ones last Christmas season. It's a billion-dollar-plus industry.
So it's no wonder the decision on whether to go real or fake when it comes to the family fir can be such a big issue for some folks. Simone McLoughlin, the Christmas Shop manager and self-proclaimed Head Elf at Summers Christmas Tree Farm in Middleton, once asked her bosses if she could put up a plastic tree in the Christmas Shop merely to help display their enormous collection of ornaments. She might as well have asked if Santa was real.
To the folks at Summers, an artificial tree is absolute heresy. "We do sell artificial wreaths (including neon-decorated and Packers-themed options) for customers to use indoors," says McLoughlin. "But if people ask about artificial trees, we say, 'Are you kidding?'"
Walaszek, though, has very fond memories of the artificial trees she grew up with.
"In the small town where I am from," she says, "it was the wealthier families that had real trees. My dad owned a small business, and our income really varied from year to year. Since we didn't have a lot of money, having an artificial tree meant we knew we'd have one every year. When I graduated college and moved out on my own, one of my first 'adult' purchases was an artificial tree. It felt like home."
As Walaszek and her husband moved all over the country for med school and his residency, that tree came with them. "But he grew up with a real tree and had always preferred them," she says. "He loved the idea of bringing nature inside and missed the way real trees smelled. The year his dad died, I agreed to make the switch. It made him feel good to have that connection with his childhood."
After hanging on to the artificial tree for several years and even putting it up in the basement occasionally, Walaszek finally ended up donating it to Easter Seals. "While I sometimes miss that fake tree," she says with resignation, "it felt good to help out another family."
For other couples, the issue isn't so much what to put up, but when. Brad Klingele, the program manager for the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions at UW-Madison, would ideally wait until well after Thanksgiving to start taking out the tinsel.
"If it were up to me, I wouldn't put up a single decoration, except our Advent calendar and the four candles in our Advent wreath, until the actual Christmas season." (In the Catholic Church, that starts Christmas Eve and extends through Jan. 5, the day before the Epiphany.) Advent, he notes, "is about waiting and looking forward to God coming in Christ. I really like the rhythm of waiting."
Klingele admits that going fast and furious with decorating has a secular downside for him, as well. "Pulling everything out too early runs the risk of me being little bit tired of everything by the time Dec. 25 rolls around."
But Klingele's wife, Cecelia, a UW-Madison law school professor and equally observant Catholic, can't wait to get everything up by the end of Thanksgiving weekend. "Christmas brings her joy," he says, "And it's a joy she is ready to experience the minute Thanksgiving is over."
Moreover, says Klingele, "Everyone in the family is expected to decorate together. It's not so much that I don't like things to be decorated. I do. I just don't like putting the stuff up, especially the lights. I'm really not that crazy about heights."
The Klingeles have had their disagreements over other aspects of Christmas decorating, including what color those lights should be. "I like white," says Brad. "I think they are classier. But Cecelia really likes the colored ones."
The couple have compromised by hanging colored strands on the tree, but using white lights to decorate the outside of the house.
Best practices for opening presents was yet another area of difference. "In my family we always went to Midnight Mass and opened our presents right when we got home," says Klingele. "There was something magical about leaving for Mass and returning to presents. How could Santa be so timely? But her family's tradition was to open every gift on Christmas morning, and that's what we've adopted."
For Klingele, it's genuinely important for him that Cecelia be completely happy when it comes to the trimmings of the holiday. "My wife is better than I am about making a big deal about these things. She's better at keeping the season."
Eager to reference another family member when it comes to embodying the true spirit of Christmas, Klingele states with a sincere smile, "As my mom always said, do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?'"
Back at Summers Christmas Tree Farm, McLoughlin has learned not to be surprised by the fair share of families she witnesses every year haggling over which fir, pine or spruce to take home. "Maybe," she says philosophically, "arguing is actually part of the whole tradition."
And that may be true. Because my family, for one, may never fully agree on how it is you actually spell Hanukkah (Chanukah?).