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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 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