The December Dilemma

By Chelle Cordero

September 4, 2009 5 min read

In many households across North America, the December holidays are multicultural and interfaith. Certainly, the majority of neighborhoods around us are multicultural exhibits and true reflections of the diversity of our communities. Festive multicultural displays adorn shopping malls and town squares.

The winter holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah often are intertwined because of the calendar. Other common holiday and cultural observances that happen in or around December (based on the accepted civil calendar) include Buddhist, Islamic, pagan and Wiccan rituals; Kwanzaa is a cultural observance focusing on traditional African values and does not conflict with religious customs.

According to Dr. Ruth Abrams, the managing editor of InterfaithFamily.com, many interfaith families choose to celebrate festivities in the home, which shows "that they value both parents' traditions." While InterfaithFamily.com, based in Massachusetts, is a resource for interfaith relationships in which one partner is Jewish, many of the suggestions it makes can apply to other combinations, as well.

When children are involved, it is important to focus on their needs; family togetherness is important. If the children are being raised in one faith, you need to let them know it is OK to participate and enjoy the celebration of the "other" parent's holiday. Using the holidays to visit extended family members who observe each holiday is another terrific way to instill warm family memories. Above all, says Dr. Abrams, let children know that it is OK to enjoy both holidays and traditions and that it is not betraying their heritage or either parent to have a good time.

Some families blend the two observances, such as having a menorah next to a Christmas tree. Others decorate separate rooms or corners for each holiday. Communication and comfort are important in all interfaith situations. Abrams writes in one of the guides InterfaithFamily.com makes available to the public: "If everyone in the family is comfortable playing dreidel for candy canes under the Christmas tree, then this approach will work. Check in with everyone to make sure that they feel respected by attempts to blend holiday customs." The staff at IF also reminds families to allow for modifications through the years as priorities, attitudes and needs change.

The commercial market has made it easier to combine holiday decorating themes with items such as blue and white Christmas lights, dreidel- and Star of David-shaped tree ornaments, tree-shaped menorahs and more. Christmas dinner menus may include latkes, and Hanukkah Harry may deliver Hanukkah gelt and gifts. Even greeting cards that say "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" allow for combined holiday celebrations.

December holidays in 2009:

Christmas is celebrated Dec. 25 each year and commemorates the birth of Jesus; it is a significant holiday in Christianity and is observed religiously with Christmas Eve church services and prayers. Hanukkah, which is also known as the Jewish Festival of Lights, commemorates the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Holy Temple; Hanukkah is observed for eight days, beginning on the 25th of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, which is Dec. 12 this year on the Gregorian calendar. Although it is not a religious custom for either Christmas or Hanukkah to provide an abundance of gifts, retailers often enjoy this season for its increase in sales.

Yuletide, or Winter Solstice, is observed Dec. 25 and is celebrated by pagans of Germanic descent in honor of Jesus' birth and also by Wiccans to honor the rebirth of the sun. Bodhi Day, a Buddhist festival, is on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month, observed this year Dec. 8; this celebrates the day when the spiritual Buddha gained enlightenment. The Islamic new year of Hijra marks the migration of Muhammad and his followers to Medina and falls on Dec. 18, with a one-day fast of Ashura on Dec. 27.

Kwanzaa, which is celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, began in the 1960s and encouraged African-Americans to return to the traditional values of family and community. For seven nights, candelabra are lit to observe unity, self-determination, responsibility, cooperation, purpose, creativity and faith.

Whatever holidays are celebrated in your home this year, respect for the diversity in which we live will help to foster personal pride and keep traditions alive.

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