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I canâ€™t believe my first baby girl is already 2! In the beginning of this journey into parenthood I can remember the wise women of the synagogue next door to our apartment shouting, â€śEnjoy this time! It goes so fast,â€ť as Adrian and I whisked Helen off to the park, to doctorâ€™s appointments, to family functions and to the market. There was something the knowing eyes of those women told me that only a look can convey. Now, two weeks after Helenâ€™s birthday, I understand what they meant.
Adrian and I wanted Helen to have a birthday that represented our family and who she is. For three nights before the big day I stayed up until two a.m. drinking coffee and making mini piĂ±atas. I found a link on YouTube to a very organized young woman who seemed to know her way around a hot glue gun and party paper. Because of the recent damage done to Adrianâ€™s village in Mexico, I also wanted to make the Mexican/Catholic tradition more visible this year so that he would feel included.
The one major event my American Jewish family and Adrianâ€™s Mexican Catholic family have in common is that we love to party! We also love to decorate and cook and we love the element of surprise. Iâ€™ve also hated the color pink since I was a child but once I had Helen all of that changed. I was the toddler with the black converse sneakers, black jeans and black t-shirt. My daughter has become everything rainbow and butterflies have to offer. This too may change, but I doubt it.
Our menu was a mix of American and Mexican and so was our guest list! I made a cheese spread, a vegetable platter and fruit for the kids. I scoured Pinterest for ideas of how to make the snacks kid-friendly and I ended up spending over 45 minutes trying to get a red bell pepper and four slices of cucumber look like a train car. The cake was tres leches with Peppa Pig on the top. But the night before Helenâ€™s big day was probably the most special for us as a couple.
As soon as Helen went to sleep, Adrian and I started moving furniture and blowing up balloons. We wanted Helen to wake up to a living room filled with piĂ±atas and balloons. As we decorated, we spoke about how amazing the decision to start our interfaith family was. We remembered thinking that it was going to be hard to balance two religions, two traditions and two vastly different cultures. But then we laughed while we wrapped Helenâ€™s gifts, which were: An Abby Caddaby doll, giant Hebrew flashcards and a book in Spanish and English. What could be difficult about real love?
We hung up most of the balloons but let three loose so that Helen could play with them in the morning. As soon as she woke up she walked into the living room and said, â€śbuuubuuu.â€ť Thatâ€™s her version of â€śballoon.â€ť I think thatâ€™s because in Spanish the word balloon is â€śgloboâ€ť and she mixes the sounds. She loved the balloons and the gift-wrapping more that the actual gifts. She did yell, â€śAbbyyyyyâ€ť a few times before she threw the Sesame Street doll on the floor and went after the balloons again.
That day we ran around Brooklyn getting the last few odds and ends for the party. Finally, at six oâ€™clock the guests began to arrive. My mother was the first, of course. She couldnâ€™t wait to give Helen her gift. Because Adrianâ€™s mom is in Mexico, my mother fills in for her and bought Helen two gifts, one from Grandma and one from Abuela. Then my nephews trudged up the stairs of the apartment and I could hear my sister-in-law and my brother behind them. Finally, Adrianâ€™s brothers came, all four of them!
Our apartment is a small one-bedroom but people are always surprised at how many guests we can squeeze into such an intimate space. As I brought out the snacks and Adrian began making his cheese enchiladas, I looked around at our diverse living room. There was happiness and celebration all around and Helen was so surprised.
After we ate and opened gifts it was time to cut the Peppa Pig cake. My nephews love chocolate cake but this cake was filled with strawberries, peaches, cream, condensed milk and vanilla cake. Tres leches cake is traditional in Mexico and when itâ€™s done right it tastes like a sugary cloud. We turned off the lights and first played â€ślas maĂ±anitasâ€ť on the stereo. This is a traditional Mexican birthday song. Then we sang Happy Birthday in English.
My nephews were shocked when they saw that the cake wasnâ€™t chocolate and even more shocked when they tasted how delicious it was. They are just three months older than Helen and they love her. They ran around after the cake cutting singing, â€śHelen Rose, Helen Rose, Helen Rose.â€ť And I wonder what Helen wished for when she blew out her candle. Was it a pony? Was it candy and ice cream? Or was it my wish? That our house, no matter where we live, will always be filled with two religions and love that knows no limits.
With not quite 12 days between Hanukkah and Christmas this year (depending on just how you count), I thought I would dedicate this post to that persistently ambitious Christmas carol (which also has more than one Hanukkah-themed version). In no particular order, here are some memorable moments from this Decemberâ€™s interfaith holiday season:
1. Â Learning and sharing holiday baking traditions always crowns my list, from my spouseâ€™s excellent latkes to Christmas cookies to the gingerbread people my spouseâ€™s family favored at this time of year, and chuckling at his always-remarkable excitement over indulging in my familyâ€™s Christmas morning tradition of having pigs-in-blankets for breakfast.
2. Â Learning and re-learning with my children the story of Hanukkah, from the Maccabees to the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), from dreidel to gelt, and learning and re-learning, how to share the stories of Christmas with them as well.
3. Â Making a list, or two or three, and checking them at least twice, to make sure we have a good balance of gifts to spread across eight nights and one festive morning.
4. Â Making sure that list of gifts includes opportunities to remind our children that the holiday season is as much about giving as getting (and this year, giving each daughter a tzedakah box as an opportunity to think about giving).
5. Â Baking “just one more batch” of cookies after we’ve already made four, this time chocolate peppermint buttons, because I am a compulsive holiday baker who likes nothing more than giving away platefuls of cookies.
6. Â Answering the persistent queries from my childrenâ€™s great-grandparents about what to send their great-grandchildren, and do they have to send gifts for Hanukkah, or is it all right to give them a Christmas gift, too, since they know weâ€™re raising our kids Jewish? (Answer: gifts are always welcome, and we love you no matter how you figure this one out).
7. Â Soothing my 6-year-old daughterâ€™s tears as she mourns the eighth-night end of Hanukkah, by reminding her of all of the many holidays and festive days that weâ€™ll enjoy between now and next December.
8. Â Worrying that hegemonic Christmas is overtaking Hanukkah in our homeâ€™s holiday decorations, as this year we brought Christmas-themed dishes onto our holiday table, and asking my Jewish spouse for what feels like the 50th time if he is sure he is OK with the Christmas-themed dinnerware, and all of the other Christmas-y things that have festooned our house, like the bough of pretend holly which now winds up our staircase, and gives great joy to our daughter who shares the plantâ€™s name?
9. Â Smiling as he reassures me that he really likes the new dishes, because the bowls have holly on them and the plates have a cute little village that reminds us of a favorite place where we once lived.
10. Â Laughing with my spouse as I tell him that I think it would be fun to have special Passover plates too, not because I want us to be particularly frum, but because I enjoy holiday dishes, and wouldnâ€™t it be fun to mark Passover with special dishes too (and throw a bit of kashrut into the mix without even meaning to)?
11. Continuing to read Hanukkah books to my daughters many nights after all nine candles have long since burned down to their holders, and smiling at my spouse over our elder daughterâ€™s head as she insists on singing the song â€śHanukkah O Hanukkahâ€ť all by herself.
12. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as Christmas Eve approaches, and realizing that somehow, again, Iâ€™ll have made it through another festive and yet frenetic holiday season.
Wishing all of you a happy, festive and joyful holiday season!
I have always loved the holiday season, and celebrating Hanukkah as an interfaith family brings with it an extra dose of joy. When I was a child, my mother insisted that we wait until after my birthday, which falls in the first week of December, before any celebration of Christmas could commence. She wanted to make sure we didnâ€™t detract from the first December holiday, my birthday, before moving onto the one with far greater hoopla.
My motherÂ mastered the art of see-no-holiday and hear-no-holiday. If we chanced to seeÂ a Christmas tree on a carâ€™s rooftop during the weekend after Thanksgiving, my mom would gleefully declare, â€śI donâ€™t see anything!â€ť When we heard the first Christmas carols on radios or loudspeakers, sheâ€™d call out, â€śI canâ€™t hear anything, can you?â€ť My mother always meant well with this gesture, even if it flew in the face of my own very real excitement about the coming Christmas season.
Only after my birthday, a few days into December, could we get out our own decorations, choose our tree, or play Christmas music on the stereo at home. My family continued this tradition well into my adulthood, such that even this year, my brother (who has been married for several years) apologized to me during our usual Thanksgiving phone call: â€śI think weâ€™re going to get out the holiday decorations before your birthday this year.â€ť I laughed, thinkingÂ itÂ sounded like fun.
The first Hanukkah I celebrated with my Husband (then-boyfriend) began November 29, the day after Thanksgiving. We lit a small travel menorah in a hotel in Chicago, where weâ€™d come to celebrate both holidays with his family. For once, I didnâ€™t have to wait to celebrate a December holiday! I didnâ€™t even have to avoid, as usual, Black Friday shopping, since I needed to finish buying gifts for my boyfriend well in advance of the busiest shopping day.
Now that I have celebrated over a decade and more Hanukkahs with Ben, I am used to the ebb and flow of the Hanukkah calendar. This year, Hanukkah starts on a great day, the evening of December 6, far enough into December to allow a few more days to shop and prepare, but not so late that we light the lights of both holidays at the same time. I skipped Black Friday shopping this year, but on Saturday I remembered that with Hanukkah starting in a week, perhaps I really should have joined the throng on the busiest shopping day of the year.
When we celebrate two holidays in my interfaith family, we hang white lights and blue lights and multi-colored lights all across the doorways in our home, and along the tops of bookshelves and curtain rods. Christmas-colored lights line the shelf on which we place our menorahs. We break out Jewish-star emblazoned Hanukkah place mats with matching blue napkins, and join them with green-and-red place mats and napkins. We bake paper-thin butter cookies in shapes appropriate for both holidays, and we make sour milk sugar cookies with colored icing. When I was a child, we called these red-and-green cookies “Santa Clauses and Christmas trees,” but now weâ€™ve added blue-and-white menorahs, dreidels and six-pointed stars to the mix as well.
Giving the cookies the awkward name of “Santas and dreidels and menorahs and trees” is the closest we come to a December holiday mashup.Â Despite the holidays fallingÂ in such close proximity, we donâ€™t hang dreidels on our tree, or call it a Hanukkah bush. We give Â each holidayÂ its own separate identityÂ as best we can, although this might seem difficult when the holiday books stack together and theÂ red-and-green towels on our oven door hang right next to blue-and-white ones. Two holidays make for twice the festivities.
This year Hanukkah starts early, and my daughtersÂ reap the benefits of being in an interfaith family. Theyâ€™ll compress a monthâ€™s worth of anticipation into a weekâ€™s worth of waiting. As we wait, weâ€™ll tell the stories of Hanukkah as best we can, giving this holiday its own weight and emphasis. After Hanukkah ends, our daughters will still have more than a week of renewed anticipation as they wait for Christmas Day. Theyâ€™ll dream and wonder about Santa Claus, and weâ€™ll talk, too, about the birth of the historical Jesus, as best we can.
We unpacked our holiday boxes the weekend after Thanksgiving. I wish I could show you my mother’s face from our Skype call when we told her we were unpacking the boxes. Her expression relaxed, I’m glad to say, when I explained thatÂ Hanukkah started next weekend.
Before we unpacked our two holidaysâ€™ decorations, Ben wanted to know if I felt sure I was OK with it: After all, my birthday isnâ€™t until later in the week.
â€śIâ€™m sure,â€ť I said. â€śThe kids are excited, and truth be told, Hanukkah starts in a week, and Iâ€™m excited too!â€ť
Do you prefer an early or late Hanukkah? How does your holiday season double the festive feeling?Â
When Sammy was little, everything about being Jewish and celebrating Jewish holidays was â€śawesome.â€ť His love of all things Jewish stemmed, in part, from his loving and joyful experience at the preschool at our synagogue. It also came from a conscience effort made by me and Cameron to make religious engagement enjoyable.
As I wrote in Rosh Hashanah Party for the New Year, Cameron and I felt that when we were children faith was more serious than fun. We believed that this more formal approach to religion was one reason many in our generation were less religiously engaged as adults. In my own family, I had siblings and relativesâ€“inmarried and intermarriedâ€“who celebrated Jewish holidays because they felt obligated to; not because they found them meaningful or fulfilling.
We wanted Sammy to have a different relationship with faith. We wanted him to see the joy in Judaism, so we tried to create fun and memorable celebrations. These holiday observances had a strong community component in order to help nurture Sammyâ€™s connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.
When Sammy was in preschool, we decided to host a Jewish New Year party. We created a carnival-like atmosphere in our backyard for Sammy and our friendsâ€™ families to enjoy. We had games and holiday crafts and apple and honey-themed treats.
We had an apple beanbag toss, a kid-safe version of bobbing for apples using Nabber Grabbers, and a Pin the Apple in the Tree game. There were Rosh Hashanah-themed coloring pages, a Design Your Own Apple Tree craft, and apple-shaped cookies to decorate. It was a lot of work, but it was, in the words of my then-preschooler, â€śawesome.â€ť Our friends and their kids also loved it; so much so, that we decided to make it an annual event.
After several years of our Rosh Hashanah backyard carnival, Sammy and his friends outgrew the crafts and games. Our party had become too babyish. When Sammy told me this, I was a little shocked. He was still my little boy. Wasnâ€™t it just yesterday that he stopped wearing diapers? How could he be too old for coloring pages and the beanbag toss?
However, the fact was that he stopped wearing diapers four years earlier, and sports were now much cooler than Pin the Apple in the Tree. Sammy asked if we could replace the little kids stuff with gaga. Gaga is an Israeli variation of dodgeball that is played in an octagonal or hexagonal shaped pit and is popular at US Jewish summer camps and day schools.
So, in order to maintain the awesomeness of our Rosh Hashanah party, we turned our backyard into a gaga pit. Doing it was a real sign of Cameronâ€™s love for me and Sammy. Cameron derives much pleasure from working in the yard, and he sacrificed his grass for his Jewish family. I could tell that it took a lot of emotional energy for him to remain calm as he watched the lawn disappear inside the large space we used for the pit.
Once we established gaga as the party activity, I thought we had found a way for the tradition to grow with the kids, but Sammy and his friends were one step ahead of us on the coolness ladder. Last year we were told that gaga was out (Cameron was thrilled!), and choose your own adventure (or activity) was in. We adapted again.
We moved the party to a park in our neighborhood and invited our friends for coffee, juice and sweet (in honor of the New Year) breakfast treats. Some families brought their dogs and others brought balls. The kids played Frisbee, basketball, baseball and other games they invented; the adults spent time catching up.
The celebration wasâ€¦awesome, and it was about what it has always been about: sharing the holiday with our community, creating happy Jewish memories for our family and friends, and helping Sammy and his friends learn to associate observance with fun and enjoyment, rather than simply obligation.
When we host our annual Jewish New Year celebration this weekend, it will again follow the freedom-to-do-what-you-want model, and I imagine that we will stick with this format for a while now that Sammy is moving into the tween years. But then again, it might change. If Iâ€™ve become hip to anything over the past few years, itâ€™s that we must evolve to remain awesome. Just as we sometimes need to rethink our celebrations in order to keep them relevant to the next generation.