As if there isn’t enough built-in stress this time of year, the conversation around December holidays has a new wrinkle. The topic of how to acknowledge and celebrate the holidays has taken on greater importance in recent years — in classrooms, workplaces, among TV pundits and political candidates, and perhaps, in your own social circles. The United States is one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, and one of the most religious-developed nations (OBrien, 2011). No wonder discourse about the holidays (including what to say, and where and how to celebrate) is so challenging. Today, the dialogue ranges from being inclusive of all traditions to giving lip service to non-Christian traditions to the War on Christmas battle cry.

What if you have a lot of people in your life with different religions?

Exchanging the word Holidays for the word Christmas is clearly problematic for some people, yet it’s insufficient for others, according to consultants Kate Berardo and Simma Lieberman. They suggest that the holidays are an opportunity to be with friends and family to build understanding and awareness about others. (Berardo, Lieberman; n.d.)

Much of the friction around our differences comes from fear based on a lack of information and understanding. Expressing interest and acceptance for another tradition can add dimension to one’s own holiday experience. Berardo and Lieberman offer three ways to create a more inclusive holiday environment:

  1. Learn about other celebrations. Watch TV shows about holidays you are not familiar with, search online, or read books. Share what you learn with others as a way to expand the conversation.
  2. Be respectful of differences. Without exception, recognize that people celebrate a variety of holidays this time of year, that even within the same faith traditions vary, and that some people choose not to celebrate at all. Each person makes their own individual decision about the way they approach the holidays.
  3. Mark your calendar and address book. Look up and note the dates of various holidays if they aren’t automatically in your calendar. Indicate which holidays people celebrate in your address book; when you send cards, include a hand-written note acknowledging their celebration. Asking people to clarify exactly when they celebrate so you can mark it down can also be a great ice-breaker, showing that you respect their traditions.

Avoiding tension due to religious or spiritual differences

The holidays are the perfect time to practice tolerance and compassion, and to celebrate family and their differences.  (YourTango, 2014) Often, however, we grow up with holiday traditions whose meaning goes beyond religion and spirituality. There is a comfort factor — a sense of belonging and familiarity — that comes with special foods, music, and activities. We may not even realize how deeply we are attached to those things until we are without them. Having children can rekindle the importance of things we experienced in childhood.

For interfaith families, or families and individuals whose traditions are in the minority within their social circles, navigating these waters can be emotional. Dealing with people who are at best condescending and dismissive, and at worst, hostile toward something they perceive as an affront or disruption to their own celebrations can make for a very uncomfortable gathering.

Keep in mind, it is actually possible to be on both the giving and receiving ends of that hostility (close-minded about traditions that are foreign to you, yet defensive or protective about your own practices). Here are some suggestions for alleviating some of that tension.

  • Don’t make assumptions. Ask others about their holiday traditions, including what they did as kids and what they enjoy today. Share some of your own favorite traditions.
  • If you are unfamiliar with a particular holiday, ask about its significance. Find common ground with your own spiritual beliefs to discuss. The new in-law practicing a religion you are unfamiliar with might be eager to learn about your celebrations too.
  • Understand that people are not always tactful when faced with new ideas. Be patient and thoughtful with explanations and comments. And, be willing to let some things go. If someone you only see once a year is willing to get into a fight over some particular detail, let them have it. It’s not worth your mental health.

Create some non-religious/spiritual traditions

Another solution is to create some new traditions that create connections rather than emphasizing differences.

  • Go snowshoeing or hiking in the woods with a small picnic basket.
  • Have a game night with board games or card games.
  • Gather for a potluck dinner of everyone’s favorite appetizers.
  • Make winter-themed crafts.
  • Volunteer as a family or group of friends.
  • Shop together for children or families in need.
  • Visit a museum or art gallery. (Many communities host holiday art walks.)
  • Attend a concert or theater production.
  • Perform random acts of kindness.

Holiday tensions and mental health

Religious and spiritual differences often trigger depression and anxiety around the holidays. The historical baggage in our relationships is especially heavy if faith differences create conflicts. Working with a mental health professional can be extremely productive for dealing with these conflicts. It is easy to get caught up in all the busy-ness of the season and forget to practice self-care. Taking time for yourself, finding ways to relax amid the chaos, eating well and making sure to get enough sleep, can all help reduce stress and improve your state of mind. A therapist can help you successfully implement these good habits, and also act as a sounding board for your thoughts. Don’t underestimate the benefits of talking with a person who cares about your well-being, yet is totally outside the social circles you are trying so hard to navigate. That fresh outlook helps to keep things in perspective. The tiny details we obsess over may be important for our traditions, but they are not more important than your health.

For more ideas on adding meaning to the holiday season, read our last blog, Give More, Spend Less: Not All Holiday Gifts Have to be Bought.

Need Help?

If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.

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Obrien, A. (2011) The December Dilemma: Acknowledging Religious Holidays in the Classroom. Retrieved on December 7, 2015, from:

Berardo, K. and Lieberman, S. (n.d.) Appreciating Diversity During the Holidays:
It’s about more than just a simple “Happy Holidays” greeting card. Retrieved on December 7, 2015, from:

YourTango Experts (2014). Interfaith Relationships During The Holidays. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2015, from