Our Multicultural, Interfaith Holiday Season


December in our home has been a time of experimenting and sharing. The differences in our household demand that we be creative and mindful of our cultures and religions. My husband is from Colombia and is Catholic, while I am from Moldova (in the former Soviet Union) and am Jewish.

We are raising our two children Jewish–our daughter Isabella is three years old and our son is one–and find that December is both exciting and trying. We try to make the holidays as joyous as possible with song, dance, treats and gifts. While they have religious connotations, we feel that it is important for our children to associate a sense of togetherness and enjoyment with the holidays until they are able to understand why we celebrate them all.

My husband comes from a devout Catholic family while I am the first in two generations to practice Judaism. The fact that he comes from such a devout upbringing proves to be difficult sometimes, because, unlike the home he grew up in, our lives are not organized around his Catholic and cultural observances. It is hard for the two of us since his expectations are not always met.

While he indicates that he understands and happily accepts his life, I try to give him a semblance of his old life: the Christmas tree after Thanksgiving Day, the favorite food during the events that surround the Catholic holidays; and the family dinners–my variation on this is that they are held on Fridays for Shabbat.

None of these is difficult to perform, but there is always an essence that is missing from the lunches and celebrations. It is hard for me not to understand what is missing and it is painful for him not to be able to articulate it, except to say that I wouldn’t understand. While I try to be as attentive as possible to his needs as he is always to mine, that is not always enough. The same happens, conversely, with him not understanding every nuance of Jewish traditions.

Before we were married my husband agreed to be involved with our children and my traditions. His commitment to a unified family life has made celebrating Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays very easy, but it is not so easy for him as we don’t celebrate all of the traditions that he was raised with. To make up for those lost traditions, we put up a Christmas tree, buy Christmas gifts and listen to Christmas carols, among other things. While we follow most of the protocols that Christmas dictates, there are things that we don’t do–the nativity scene by the Christmas tree and the Catholic-oriented Christmas songs (“Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” a favorite of my husband’s). This is not a requirement to celebrate Christmas for him, but he does miss it.

One of the most important traditions to him is the Christmas Novena, which is nine days of prayer for about an hour each night in anticipation of Christmas. Last year my husband attended the Christmas Novena at his parents’ home and took our daughter with him. While Isabella was too young to understand, she enjoyed the singing afterwards, which included using maracas and other assorted instruments and the traditional Colombian food. I also attended a session of the Christmas Novena and contributed by singing along in Spanish (or at least trying to with the little Spanish that I know). During the Christmas Novena days my in-laws also attended some of our Hanukkah celebrations in our home. Both the last days of Hanukkah and the Christmas Novena were celebrated in our home–as our immediate family is not large we tend to be together on all major holidays.

You may ask yourself if we recite each other’s prayers–the answer is no. We both observe silence while prayers are said in the other’s religion, but we respect each other’s beliefs. We do sing and dance and do thoroughly enjoy the celebratory portion of the holidays.

Our families are very supportive of our choices and contribute in their own way. Having been brought up in one of the former Soviet states, my family was never allowed to celebrate our faith, making my efforts to learn and celebrate each Jewish holiday more important to me. My husband respects my efforts and helps me by researching the holidays and then striving to create the right holiday environment.

Interestingly, each of our families contributes gifts and sentiments for each of the holidays. My in-laws have given me a Jewish Bible, as well as numerous menorahs, while my family contributes Christmas gifts and the occasional Catholic relic to my husband. Part of our new traditions has been to explain to each other and our families the differences between the celebrations. Educating ourselves about our religion is fast becoming an important part of our lives, one that we expect will be useful as we start reaching the years when our children flood us with questions.

We are blessed with supportive parents who strive to be part of our children’s lives, and while my in-laws are not Jewish they don’t seem to mind the traditional Jewish dishes that I cook. To be honest, I don’t mind bunuelos and arequipe (fried cheese dough and caramel spread) which are a part of Colombia’s Catholic Noche Buena or Christmas Eve celebration.

Will our recipe work in the coming years? I don’t know, but we will continue to strive to make it work for as long as it takes. After all, that is truly the spirit of our holidays–new beginnings and the celebration of family.