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This interfaith holiday season has been trickier than I thought. If there is a lot of planning, cooking and gift buying for one holiday, then the two holiday celebrating seems impossible. My family celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. But, we are not just a Jewish/Catholic home. We are a Brooklyn Jewish and Mexican Catholic household. This means a few things. First it means that I had to decorate with two faiths in mind, cook with two faiths in mind and buy gifts with two faiths in mind. What it also means is that I messed up a lot of traditions, which I now know I need to fix for next year. Itâ€™s hard trying to get everything right and Iâ€™ve been so concerned about teaching Helen, our 1-year-old, about our different traditions that I forgot to relax and pay attention.
Here are a few examples of the way I historically ruined part of the holidays. Apparently in Mexico, Christmas is a big deal but itâ€™s something called â€śLas Posadasâ€ť thatâ€™s an even bigger deal. The â€śPosadasâ€ť begin on December 16Â and end on December 24Â (Christmas Eve). In Mexico it means a party every night from the 16th to the 24th and a re-enactment of Mary and Josephâ€™s trip to Bethlehem in search of lodging. Although I heard Adrian mention the â€śPosadasâ€ť I assumed this tradition was on Christmas day. On Christmas Eve while Adrian was at work, I was making a traditional Mexican punch to surprise him with and while reading the recipe I read the story of the â€śPosadasâ€ť and realized I HAD MISSED THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE MEXICAN CATHOLIC HOLIDAY! Great.
That was mess-up number one. Hereâ€™s something else. Hanukkah began the same night as Christmas Eve this year. I was supposed to make tamales (a tradition in Mexico on Christmas) and latkes. Out of my concern for how to make the tamale recipe perfect, I FORGOT TO MAKE THE LATKES. Great.
That was mess-up number two. It gets better. Little did I know that tamales take almost four hours to make! The recipe said one to two hours. But, ask anyone from Mexico and they will laugh if you say one hour. I found this out later. I had told Adrian not to eat at work, so he got home at midnight when I thought the tamales would be ready and we ended up waiting until 2:30 a.m. when they were finally ready and we were so tired that we ate one each and went to bed.
That was mess-up number three. On Christmas day we went to my brotherâ€™s house with the baby. My brother has twin boys and he and his wife threw a Hanukkah party. My mother brought the latkes to that party and we all lit the menorah and had a great time. Then Adrian, Helen and I went to Adrianâ€™s friendâ€™s house and saw their tree and their baby Jesus statue. Helen had a great day. But, when we got home I had another recipe I had yet to make and I was so exhausted that when I went to put something in the blender I forgot to put the top on and green tomatillo sauce splattered all over the kitchen (and my mother who had come over to watch the baby while Adrian and I made dinner).
That felt like mess-up number four thousand. I was upset. First I couldnâ€™t believe I had missed the week celebration before Christmas. Then I couldnâ€™t believe how bad my recipes were. But both Hanukkah and Christmas are celebrations of miracles. I waited for one. And in a moment of frustration I thought of the Hanukkah story.
The Hanukkah story is about not having enough of something, or thinking one doesnâ€™t have enough of something. On Hanukkah the Jews celebrate the small band of Jews who defeated the Greeks during the time of the secondÂ Temple. When the Greeks made all of the oil in the holy temple impure, the Jews found a little bit of oil left. But, the oil they found was only enough to last for one day. And then a miracle occurred and the little oil they had come across ended up lasting for eight days. Hanukkah is the celebration of light.
Christmas too is a celebration of light. The lesson of Hanukkah is that sometimes in great darkness a miracle can happen. The birth of Christ teaches this same lesson. A lot of the challenges my family faces during the holidays has to do with teaching our daughter to respect and understand both of our religions and cultures. It is about starting new traditions and sticking to them so that when she grows up she can feel the love of both faiths and choose her own path. But another challenge is the need for others to take our beliefs seriously. At the Jewish homes we go into we have a need for people to take us seriously and the same goes for the Catholic homes.
Adrian and I visited two of his friends’ homes during the holidays. Both friends have children. At the first house his friendâ€™s daughter who is 7 years old ran to greet us at the door and took Helen out of my arms so she could carry her to her toys and play with her. At the second home, the other friendâ€™s daughter is Helenâ€™s exact age. They played with dolls, stuffed animals and books. At my brotherâ€™s house my nephews are a few months older than Helen. They all ran around laughing and opening their Hanukkah presents. These are the real miracles of light. Children have no inhibitions, no preconceived notions. They want to play and explore. They want to love and be loved. Sometimes out of total darkness they appear. They are the rare oil, the spark that lights the whole Beit HaMikdash (The Holy Temple).
The dual holiday extravaganza this season is more work than I thought it would be. But, itâ€™s important for me to keep the traditions from both my own family and Adrianâ€™s family in order for our daughter Helen to grow up understanding and respecting her two faiths: Jewish on my side and Mexican Catholic on Adrianâ€™s side. Also, Helen is 14 months old now and this Hanukkah/Christmas is really starting to come alive. This year both holidays fall on the same day! It feels like Moses and Jesus are somewhere eating latkes and drinking eggnog together.
From the beginning of my organization of the holidays, decorations were the first thing on my list. As far as decorations go, the question on my familyâ€™s minds was, â€śTo tree or not to tree?â€ť Iâ€™ve wanted a Christmas tree since I was a little girl in Hebrew school. When I was 12 I bought a plastic one from Rite Aid and hid it in the garage. I decorated it with colored balls and candy canes and I would goÂ out into the garage to stare at it. But this year because of our interfaith family, and our new traditions that include our old traditions combined into one big tradition, I was curious to know if Adrian wanted a tree.
At first he did. We set a date to go look for one. But, after a few days he decided against it. We are being quite thrifty right now and he decided we didnâ€™t need to spend money on a tree. â€śNext year,â€ť he said. But, what he doesnâ€™t know is that on Saturday when he goes to work at the restaurant at night, Helen and I will sneak out to buy a tree. It will be cheaper then because Saturday is Christmas eve so the tree people are looking to sell the rest of what they have for a lower price. I canâ€™t wait to see Adrianâ€™s face when he walks in and sees the tree. This might be a new tradition Iâ€™ve invented. Maybe every year Helen and I will sneak out to surprise her Papi! And of course, my 12-year-old self really wants that tree too.
I raided the aisles at Amazing Savings last week. I bought something called “Hanukah Tinsel.” Who knew something like this even existed! Itâ€™s tinsel but itâ€™s blue and white with dreidels hanging off of it. Then I bought stockings with our familyâ€™s initials and filled them with Hanukkah gelt. Usually Hanukkah gelt is money, but I filled them with big plastic dreidels that have jelly beans inside. Thatâ€™s my idea of Hanukkah gelt. Our apartment looks like the beginning of a crazy bat mitzvah/quinciĂ±era/Christmas/Hanukkah party. Obviously, Iâ€™m more excited about this than anyone else in my family.
Our gift bags are also outrageous. We have gifts from Santa, Mami, Papi and Grandma. Then we have Hanukkah gifts. Thereâ€™s one bag with Santa on it and heâ€™s looking at another gift bag with a menorah on it, almost as if heâ€™s remarking to himself â€śNow thatâ€™s a great idea to light my sleigh.â€ť In my mind I see Santa climbing down chimneys holding a menorah and having a plate of latkes by the tree. In our Brooklyn apartment Santa has to come through the fire escape. But, heâ€™ll get here somehow. I just hope no one calls the cops on him.
Today when Adrian goes to work Helen and I have to start shopping for the food on our Hanukkah/Christmas menu. In Mexico, a tradition on Christmas is a drink called â€śPonche.â€ť This is like a warm fruit punch that can be made with or without alcohol. Adrian likes it without alcohol. It has Mexican fruits, apples, raisins and sugar cane in it. Helen and I will go to the Mexican markets in the Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn and look around for these fruits and ingredients. We also need a bag of jalapeĂ±o and serrano chili peppers. Then we might make tamales or another traditional dish called â€śPipian Verdeâ€ť which is a pumpkin seed sauce.
For Hanukkah I always make plain potato latkes and zucchini latkes. And of course I have to make applesauce to go with it! In my family when I was growing up, Hanukkah was never one of the biggest holidays that we celebrated. But now that Adrian and I have Helen, I think it will become a bigger holiday than it was for me. Iâ€™m grateful that our two holidays coincided this year. To me it is a symbol that the world is changing and we are united even in our differences. I know that the holidays coinciding have to do with the 13 months of the Jewish calendar, but nevertheless I take it as my own personal and familial symbol.
Our apartment looks bright and festive. Also, this year I learned to knit and everyone is getting a Hanukkah/Christmas scarf! And thereâ€™s just one more thing I forgot to mention. In lightÂ of us trying to save money this holiday, I made homemade ornaments both as gifts and for our tree that we have yet to buy. They arenâ€™t finished yet but they are in the shapes of elephants, reindeer, dreidels, menorahs, candy canes and of course, hearts. One special ornament is a circle with Helenâ€™s hand print in it. That one symbolizes our two faiths as a circle, a meeting point, a never-ending sphere of understanding, communication and love. Two faiths, two holidays, one meeting point, one love.
I donâ€™t know how to celebrate the holidays this year, with an election outcome thatâ€™s rocked the nation and the world (regardless of political leanings), and that has left much of the transition process in a state of satire, confusion or despair. Itâ€™s been almost a month since the big date in November, and Iâ€™m still in a post-election funk. Singing out my usual enjoyment of the holidays, which for me as an interfaith parent are both a time of doubled joy and doubled stress, seems irresponsible at worst, and flighty at best. Iâ€™m just not good at flighty.
Iâ€™ve struggled, too, with whether to mention the election on this blog, knowing full well that not all readers share the same reactions to the election itself, and the politics that have unfolded in the aftermath. But whatâ€™s common to all of us is the deep divide in our nationâ€™s population that this election has shed light on. My elder daughter, age 7, looked forward to the idea of a woman president with a sparkle in her eye. When she found out that Hillary Clinton had lost, she remarked, in a reiteration of a phrase she must have heard time and time again (particularly when my husbandâ€™s beloved Green Bay Packers lose a game), â€śItâ€™s all right, maybe weâ€™ll have better luck next time.â€ť
Beyond politics, as an interfaith parent, I have a responsibility to raise my daughters to be the good, moral people I want them to be in the world. Being an interfaith family means that respect for diversity and the value of multiple lives and ways of being is inherent in the way we raise our daughters. The ketubah that my husband and I signed at our interfaith wedding ceremony noted that, â€śshould we be blessed with children, we intend to raise them to honor justice, respect diversity, love the holy, and make whole the world.â€ť Holiday season or no, president-elect I trust or not, thatâ€™s a promise my husband and I are doing our best to keep. The holidays give us yet another opportunity to put this intention into action.
I haveÂ written here beforeÂ about the extent to which my December is guided by an understanding of both Hanukkah and Christmas as being, fundamentally, about small tiny lights emerging in the darkness, and I think thatâ€™s even more true this year. At the end of Jewish wedding ceremonies, the newly married couple breaks a glass together; tradition differs as to the reason for this ritual. The reason that resonates most deeply for me is that, even in a time of joy, sorrow remains, and the world is still in need of mending.
Iâ€™d argue that the reverse is true, too: Even in a time of sorrow, confusion or darkness, thereâ€™s a placeâ€”a very important placeâ€”for joy and light shining through.
Tikkun olam, the Jewish idea of making whole the world, speaks directly to the sorrows in the world, as well as to the need of light to shine through the darkness and confusion, particularly of this holiday season. I have to believe that every little effort to create a more holy and more just world adds light back to the darkness. I have to believe that sometimes, just sometimes, the symbols of the baby in the manger and the menorah in the Temple mean more than they can say in plain or simple words.
This year of all years, I need the light and joy all the more strongly because of the darknessâ€”so long as I donâ€™t forget the light is there to pierce through the darkness and guide the way forward. Iâ€™ll get out the decorations for both holidays a few days early, put the songs of Hanukkah and Christmas on just a little louder than usual, bake plenty of cookies and celebrate light in a time of darkness.