Amy Friend used to join her family for Christmas Eve dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia. The 29-year-old congressional staff attorney from Glover Park loved the exquisite meals, the elegant environment, and the fact that the restaurant was filled with Jews who, like herself, had no place else to go.

Then she met the man of her dreams -- Tim Elouise, a nice Catholic man, graduate of Notre Dame. Her exquisite, elegant dinner days were over. From then on, Friend joined the horde of mad shoppers racing to find the best Christmas deals.

"I never shopped in such massive form before," she says, pointing out she was buying presents for people she barely knew. "But Christmas with Tim's family is really fun, they have this huge Christmas tree with presents spilling over onto the floor. It's consumer heaven."

Last year, after a few squabbles over religious upbringing of their children, the still-optimistic, happy couple meant to light the menorah candles, but Hanukah fell between Christmas and New Year's -- when they were at Friend's in-laws. By the time they got back home they'd forgotten all about it. This year, they have ground rules: When the tree comes out, so does the menorah.

According to the United Jewish Appeal Federation, the District of Columbia has one of the highest proportions of mixed marriages in the nation. Statistics show that more than half (55 percent) of all married Jews ages 23-25 choose non-Jewish spouses.

Friend and Elouise are one of many interfaith couples trying to negotiate holiday celebrations without stepping over each other's faith. Pumped up as a Jewish alternative to Christmas, Hanukah has taken on increasing importance over the years, as Jewish mates seek to establish their ethnic identity in a relationship. Tension results.

"The holidays raise all kinds of emotional questions," says Lee F. Gruzen, author of Raising Your Jewish/Christian Child: Wise Choices for Interfaith Parents (Dodd, Mead; $16.95). "You think about your childhood, about your religion. Couples who get along pretty well most of the time get defensive. They fight over small things, greasy latkes, salmon on rye breads.".

But tension can be turned to humor, Gruzen adds. Consider the blunders: Jewish partners eating popcorn meant for tree decorations. Christian companions surprising their loved ones with Hanukah dinner on the wrong day. Little children asking family members "if they are a Hanukah or a Christmas."

It's the season to be compromising. The most common swap is a Christmas tree for a menorah. Keenan Bradshaw, a 29-year-old born-again Christian who wore a yarmulke during the last Yom Kippur services, didn't want to make a big production out of Christmas last year. He encouraged his wife -- who had gone through 10 years of Hebrew school -- to bring out the menorah his in-laws had given them as a wedding gift.

"There were times when the Christmas tree made her feel uneasy," says Bradshaw of Capitol Hill, noting that his spouse once wanted to be a rabbi. "We both knew intellectually that the tree is a pagan symbol. So we kept it low-key; we just strung popcorn and cranberries. No big deal. This year we plan to celebrate Hanukah. She'll recite the prayers by heart and skip over the part she forgets."

Christian partners often push their mates into exploring their own traditions. Veronica Wahrhaftig of Silver Spring, for instance, wanted to celebrate Hanukah with her husband, a local county police officer, so that she didn't feel guilty dragging him to church Christmas Eve. Last year, she encouraged him to take out the menorah and say a prayer.

"It was a beautiful celebration," says the 27-year-old owner of a residential cleaning service. "I didn't know the prayer at first but I picked it up after the eighth day. In exchange, he came with me to buy a tree."

When kids are involved, there is more at stake. In-laws get in on the discussions of how the children should be reared, and the children bear the brunt: Piles and piles of presents from loving, scheming grandparents.

Rick Kramer of Potomac doesn't see the need to sway his children either way. He believes a religious upbringing is important from a moral standpoint. The religion doesn't matter. On the way to their Christian grandparents in North Carolina, Amanda, 11, and Jennifer, 8, entertain their parents telling Hanukah stories they learn in Hebrew school.

"The kids love both holidays," says the 43-year-old business consultant who, as a child in Hebrew school, never imagined he would dress up as Santa Claus. "They love Christmas and fight over who gets to light the Hanukah candles."

After 17 years of marriage to a Greek Orthodox, Tina Fellus of Forest Hills has finally hit on the right combination of holiday celebrations. In exchange for sending the kids to Hebrew school, the 40-year-old social worker agreed to celebrate Christmas. Her three boys, 6, 9 and 14 get small gifts for Hanukah (crayons) and bigger ones at Christmas.

"A long time ago we decided, no angels," she says, referring to tree ornaments. "It's my husband's holiday so he rounds the kids up. Once in a while I tell him he is getting heavy duty on the lights. Then I make the Greek Christmas cookies his mother used to bake for him. They are his favorites."

In Stan Margolis' Alexandria home, December is a month-long celebration including Christmas, Hanukah and the routine Friday night kiddush -- a Jewish prayer over wine. This Christmas, he and his family plan to load up the 1984 station wagon and head to Chicago to visit Christian relatives.

"We found a motel with an indoor swimming pool so folks can swim," says the 59-year-old government employe. "Usually, we set up the Christmas tree at home first. When Hanukah converges with Christmas, we take our menorah along and put it up in the corner of our hotel room."