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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Holiday Season Products Merge Symbols of Faiths

NEW YORK -- Among the most popular seasonal cards this year on is an animated interfaith electronic greeting. As two Santas pass each other, one doffs his fur-trimmed cap and says, "Merry Christmas!" The other Santa responds by removing his cap to reveal a yarmulke, the Jewish head covering, and saying: "Shalom.", the most visited greeting card site on the web, said it decided to blend the symbols of two religions for the first time this year after requests from customers. Still, it has been surprised by the greetings' popularity. Among the 10 million holiday cards sent from its site this year, "about a million of the cards sent will be interfaith," said Jared Schutz, a company spokesman.

The December holidays have long been a source of angst for many dual-faith couples, and the tug is particularly acute for Christians and Jews whose seasonal celebrations collide head on with Christmas and Hanukkah. Couples have often decided to forgo one holiday or simply display the paraphernalia of both side by side. But many families are now synthesizing two sets of customs.

The marketplace is starting to respond to this pluralistic view of the holidays by producing what was once taboo: decorations that merge the symbols of two observances. Available this season are Christmas tree ornaments painted with menorahs or Kwanzaa lights; wreaths made of cloth printed with dreidels (the spinning toys used in a Hanukkah game); angels with wings, halos, and dreidel-print dresses; and Christmas lights that have individual Stars of David.

Such seasonal syncretism in religious symbols causes dismay among the devout. "While empathetic to the families trying to blend the two traditions, ultimately my position would be that it is mistaken and misguided to synthesize the distinct symbols of our two traditions," said Dr. Christopher Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore. "It is an American vision that tries to advance tolerance by pretending that the differences don't matter that much. It is a watering down and a distortion of what religious alliance entails."

Unfazed by such arguments, many two-religion couples find joint symbols of faith and heritage reassuring. For Doug Giles and Natalie Green Giles, Christmas was a touchy issue when they first set up house together in 1994. Giles, an Episcopalian, wanted a tree to celebrate the holiday. Green, who is Jewish, felt she was giving up a piece of her identity. While walking in Greenwich Village, they came across a store that sold a dreidel-shaped tree ornament. The blue felt object was hardly high art, but the gilded Hebrew letters gave Green comfort. "For me it neutralized the Christian symbolism of the tree," she said.

No one tracks who is buying mixed-religious ornamentation, and it is hard to say why interest is cropping up now. Some, like Abrams, theorize that the collectors are well-meaning Christians looking to be inclusive. Other possible buyers are secular institutions and businesses aiming to relate to as many employees or visitors as possible.

The obvious audience for such decorations, though, is interfaith couples, and the rate of interfaith marriage is increasing in America. Roughly one third of the 3.2 million U.S. households with Jewish adults have an interfaith marriage, according to Egon Mayer, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute. That number is increasing as some 50 percent of Jews now marry people of other faiths. Thirty years ago fewer than 10 percent of Jews married someone outside the faith.

"The holiday cards and ornaments recognize what is already fact, that we are an increasingly multicultural society," Mayer said.

Beyond the number of people participating in two-faith marriages, there seems to be an increased belief among young people that they do not have to ignore one faith to make a marriage more peaceable. "Young couples are more determined to hang on to the tradition they grew up with," said Mary Helene Rosenbaum, the director of the Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources in Kentucky. Rosenbaum describes herself as a practicing Catholic and her husband of 30 years as an observant Jew.

Whatever the cause, merchants are recording a definite increase in interest in religion-blending items. Christopher Radko designs pricey glass tree ornaments that are sold in Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus, among other stores. Three years ago he added tree ornaments with Jewish symbols, including menorahs, Stars of David, dreidels and the Ten Commandments. They were so popular that this year he has added new pieces that speak to people of other groups. Among the additions are a Buddha, a Yin-Yang symbol and an African-American man celebrating Kwanzaa, the cultural festival starting Dec. 26.

"People love them," Radko said. "For me, the spirit of Christmas is not limited to one group of people, it is inclusive of everyone willing to keep their hearts open."

Many companies avoid melding symbols in part because the potential sales are considered too small to risk offending the devout. Among the 2,000 different cards made for this holiday season by Hallmark Cards, only two have symbols from both Hanukkah and Christmas, and these appear on separate sides of the paper. Similarly, Williams-Sonoma Inc., whose decorations range from cookie cutters to wrapping paper, offers no blended holiday options.