december dilemma

by rebecca on December 14, 2011

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Welcome guest blogger Kristen from Motherese!


This year Christmas falls smack dab in the middle of Hanukkah. This fact would have meant nothing to me as a child. Now it means a lot.

Growing up, I was a good Catholic girl who went to a Catholic school in a largely Catholic town. I went to church every Sunday and every holy day of obligation. Among those feast days, Christmas was by far my favorite.

Like many little kids, I loved Christmas for the presents and the reindeer and the jolly old man dressed in red. But I also loved the mystery of the nativity story, the nobility of the poor mother seeking out shelter to give birth to her child, the wise men traveling to welcome this child with gifts. I loved looking at the life-sized crèche on the altar at our church, its giant baby Jesus never making his appearance until midnight mass. I loved lying under the Christmas tree in our family room, gazing up at the constellation of lights and tinsel and glittering ornaments. The rituals of Christmas were tied up for me with everything good about childhood – innocence, wonder, security, home.

Now there is no tree in my house, no carols, no Gospel of Luke or Matthew. We don’t celebrate Christmas here. I do, but we don’t.

You see, my husband is Jewish. And this fact – coupled with my own faith tradition – seemed for a while like it might derail us. When we were dating – years before the idea of marriage ever surfaced – we thought long about the choice to be with someone of a different religion. We read books; we took online quizzes; we sought advice. We wondered how we would pull off a wedding. We wondered how our children would answer the question, “What are you?”

But then we found that we really loved each other. We couldn’t imagine not being together, not having these hypothetical children – different faiths and all. We found a way to have a wedding. We found a way to bring our three kids into the world. And we simply don’t think about it so much anymore.

But, when Christmas and Hanukkah approach, I still do.

People in the interfaith community use the term “December Dilemma” to connote the difficulty couples face in choosing a religious path for their mixed families. And indeed I feel a dilemma at this time of year, but it’s not the one that I imagined before I had kids of my own.

Our ad hoc solution for what to do about the winter holidays has been to celebrate each one with our respective families. So we enjoy Hanukkah, latkes, and candle lighting with my husband’s mother, and Christmas, the manger, and stockings with my parents. And that is nice. In fact, it is lovely.

But I worry about the future – about sending the message to my kids that holidays happen elsewhere, outside of our home. That Christmas and Hanukkah are essentially about material acquisition. That the stories behind them are easily glossed over amidst packing suitcases full of gifts and rushing out of town.

This year I will celebrate Christmas. I will sort of celebrate Hanukkah, too. And that is fine, for now. But, whether or not my husband and I eventually decide to have a tree, a menorah, both, or neither, I want to find a way to allow my kids to feel the innocence, wonder, security, and sense of home I always felt – and really still feel, with that soaring organ music and the choir singing “O Holy Night” at midnight mass – at this time of year.

I’m not worried about what we call it or how we define it; I just don’t want our kids’ childhoods to pass without creating in our own home a space for them to feel the magic I once did, to share with them an opportunity to infuse the everyday with the transcendent.

 I love visiting Kristen’s blog because she is real. I find that refreshing in a world of Facebook status posts featuring perfect remodels and happy Sunday outings. She asks questions that stop me in my tracks like “What would you name your style of parenting?”  What altared spaces provide the December Dilemmas in your home?

photo credit by The Chanel

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{ 57 comments… read them below or add one }

Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities December 14, 2011 at 2:43 pm

A dilemma indeed. And I don’t have any wisdom to pass along, but I have no doubt that you and your husband will figure something out, a way to instill that magic and wonderment into your trio, Kristen. You are an immensely thoughtful person and parent and I know it will shake out and be lovely. Rebecca – thanks for hosting Kristen’s beautiful post. Love the new digs!

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Kristen @ Motherese December 14, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Thank you, my friend. I certainly hope that good intentions are worth something!

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rebecca December 14, 2011 at 6:30 pm

I am with you, Aidan. I, too, know that some wonderful amalgam of holiday cozy will emerge and sing in the Motherese nest where bright lights of all kinds shine. So glad to have you here.

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Kirsetin @ HipMomsGuide December 14, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Oh, Kristen, this post tugs at my heart in so many ways. I think Aidan’s comment is right: Your thoughtfulness means everything. It seems to me that by moving towards this dilemma, rather than away from it, you’re already on your way to your decision. Lucky, lucky kids to have a thinker for a mom!

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rebecca December 14, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Ooh! I love the idea of moving “towards” rather than away. Every time I run away from things they chase me down and batter me. When I lean in…I find that right life I seek, even when the complications seem overwhelming.

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Kristen @ Motherese December 14, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Thanks for your support, Kirsetin. I figure that my ruminating ways cause me enough grief, they might as well be useful to my kids! 🙂

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Alexandra December 14, 2011 at 6:36 pm

I try to keep the season as the season of giving. I get criticism from my family of origin, but this is my family: and I want them to know that once a year, we stop all the craziness and self serving that is human nature: and turn to those with less, and say, “here, even if only once in twelve months, we turn to you…here.”

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rebecca December 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm

I love the list of December suggestions for feeling the magic at your site. When we look outside ourselves Magic always seems to return. 🙂

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Kristen @ Motherese December 15, 2011 at 3:09 pm

I love that, Alexandra. Your comment here and your post yesterday really make me think about how much good could come if everybody with means followed your lead at this time of year. World peace? 🙂

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Kate December 14, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Oh, Kristen! We traveled every year for christmas (which we both celebrate, but differently) until recently. I loved having special traditions with my family, things I could count on, and the only way for us to have that consistency was to create our own. It hasn’t been simple. I can only imagine how much more tricky it is for your family!

Near our new home, there is a splendidly decorated house. On one side of the lawn there is a huge bear playing with a driedle, across the side walk, sits Santa (and snoopy). This may not be your way, but putting two holidays near each other doesn’t seem to negate either to me.

Rebecca – lovely new digs!

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rebecca December 14, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Kate,
I love this image of two sides of December celebrations playing together all lit up in the same yard!

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Kristen @ Motherese December 14, 2011 at 8:17 pm

“putting two holidays near each other doesn’t seem to negate either to me.”

I love that, Kate. Thanks.

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Shannon December 15, 2011 at 1:17 am

That is a great post, Kristen! I think many modern families have all kinds of December dilemmas. Even where to go for what celebration and when, whenever you combine families, the traditions must all be rethought. It’s rough!

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rebecca December 15, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Anytime you bring two people together with all the complications of families of origin traditions are going to need some readjustment. That’s full of good and bad. It takes blending.

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Kristen @ Motherese December 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Hi, Shannon – You know, you make a great point. I think a lot about the challenges of blending two religious traditions, but I suspect that, in some ways, we have it easier. We still get to celebrate what we loved about our childhood traditions with our families of origin all the while building new ones with our own kids. Thanks for helping me broaden my thinking on this!

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Jack@TheJackB December 15, 2011 at 1:31 am

Hi Kristen,

I appreciate the dilemma. It is part of why I never got serious with some of the women I dated because I knew that for me there was very little room for compromise on this.

I never wanted to be in a position where I had to tell someone I loved that they would have to give up certain things.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that a suitable compromise can’t be made. I am sure you will figure one out.

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rebecca December 15, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Jack,
Why is there little room for compromise? If you fall in love with a person and they have traditions they love would it be hard for you to integrate those into your life? Or if not YOUR life, would it be hard to allow them to celebrate? And what is the difference there?

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Jack@TheJackB December 15, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Hi Rebecca,

It is a complicated question and something that is very personal. The shortest answer I can give is that I want my children to be Jewish.

I want them to grow up and have their own Jewish children.

It is not because I think that we are better. We have our share of numb skulls and knuckleheads. But there is something special and meaningful about it and depending on whose numbers you believe, there are about 17 million Jews in the world.

That is it.

My relatives didn’t die in the Holocaust or get chased by the Cossacks for me not to be Jewish.

My personal beliefs don’t allow for any sort of Christmas stuff in my house, no tree and no stockings.

I dated women who weren’t Jewish and several were spectacular, but I didn’t want to be put in the position to tell them that I wanted them to give up their traditions for me. So I opted not to be serious with them.

If I hadn’t wanted children it would have been different. But I didn’t want the kids to feel like they had to choose either.

Other people make other choices and that is ok. That is what they choose to do. My kids like going to our neighbor’s house to help decorate the tree. And I make a point to teach them that we judge people based on behavior/action not belief.

Does that make sense?

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Kristen @ Motherese December 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Hi friend – I respect where you’re coming from. And it’s absolutely something we still struggle with. There are ways in which it just works (e.g. I have no problem keeping a Kosher home…the whole vegetarian thing makes that easier in a lot of ways, of course), but there are ways in which our different traditions absolutely tug at each other and probably always will.

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rebecca December 15, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Wow. I obviously am uneducated about some of the deeper complications that arise in this pairing. I am leaning in, eager to know more from both of you, yet reticent too, and I’m not sure why.

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Jack@TheJackB December 15, 2011 at 11:31 pm

I understand. There are a lots and lots of areas to be covered and no simple way to do so.

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rebecca December 18, 2011 at 12:38 pm

I’m not afraid of complications. I’m afraid of asking too personal of questions. That is my hesitation.

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6512 and growing December 15, 2011 at 3:54 am

Kristen,
As you may know, we do a mashup of the holidays at our house, which frees us up to enjoy the best of my husband’s and my traditions.

I’m more and more confident that our children can integrate and appreciate the mix-it-up style, as imperfect and goulash-y as it may be.

I hope you and your husband can find some common ground from which to blend your traditions so they complement each other, as I’m sure your marriage does.

And really, in kids’ minds: the more the merrier.

xo to you both, Rebecca and Kristen.

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rebecca December 15, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Rachel,
Ha! If you are cynical I need a new dictionary. I believe in everything. On the Solstice we’ll be laying in my bed watching the Light Fairies twirl above our heads. http://altaredspaces.com/2010/12/solstice-brings-inner-illumination/ I love it all! I believe in it all.

And if it works in my family, it works because of my cynical husband who believes in nothing. Atheist that he is he picked me! I find that funny and lovely and something that at times has radically tested my marriage and has been the single biggest reason I’ve grown as a person. The tension between belief and unbelief is the reason I love December so much. It’s full of the stuff.

As for your family? I see scads of Love growing in the soil and in the plethora of tomatoes piled high on countertops and then in jars (after first allowing us to glimpse the cut up colorful splendor). If that’s not something to believe in…what is?

But then, I’m pretty corny. I pour like syrup.

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Kristen @ Motherese December 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Yet another way I want to be like you, Rachel, when I grow up. xo

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Privilege of Parenting December 15, 2011 at 4:41 am

Two of my favorites, Rebecca and Kristen, in one space… echoing the dilemma? While X-mas trees were verboten in my Jewish home as a child, after some time as a married guy the tree became part of our Holiday landscape, complete with the homemade Jewish star I place atop the lovely tree each year. We have the Hanukah accoutrements as well and I love the mix, but I must admit it took some years for this to become both comfortable and our own tradition.

Here’s to hoping the bright spirits infuse your house and melt all barriers to complete well-being and love and whatever it is each of you most deeply wish to feel this year, and through the coming, years together, and to Rebecca and her family too. Maybe they are all just varying symbols for the love we already share, somewhere deep in our collective soul.

Namaste

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rebecca December 15, 2011 at 1:04 pm

“Here’s to hoping the bright spirits infuse your house and melt all barriers” Bruce this is EXACTLY what I would wish for every December, that our differences could become so hot that they melt away and we are all left with a pot of soup (and maybe some bread) in the end. You always say the joinging things best.

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Kristen @ Motherese December 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Yes to all of this, and especially to Rebecca’s addition of the bread. Can’t have soup without bread in my opinion. Except during Passover, of course. 🙂

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jackie gartman December 15, 2011 at 5:07 pm

I know where you’re coming from. I am Jewish and my husband was raised Catholic. We raised our kids Jewish but it was VERY important to my husband that we celebrate Christmas. So we did but I didn’t enjoy it nor did embrace it – mostly because I thought I was betraying my religion. I had to do some self-coaching around that. What I found was that I was betraying my husband but not loving and honoring what was important and meaningful to him. Carrying on this tradition with a tree, stockings and all the trimmings. Now we celebrate both and I can enjoy Christmas without making it mean that I’m betraying my faith. Once you clean up your thoughts around what it means to celebrate both, you may find that you have access to a new solution.

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rebecca December 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm

I think a lot of people feel that “either/or” choice in December between the one they love and their faith. I wanted to bring a collection of stories to the table that offers a “both/and” approch to meal sharing and rituals. I am glad you have found a way to do both, Jackie.

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Kristen @ Motherese December 15, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts so honestly, Jackie. I do see these questions as part of larger ones about identity and how to raise kids in general. I suspect we’ll eventuallu back our way into a set of compromises that feel right, just as we have done and continue to do with other parts of our relationship.

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rebecca December 15, 2011 at 9:01 pm

” I suspect we’ll eventuallu back our way into a set of compromises that feel right,” I don’t know, Kristen, if you meant this as a yoga metaphor, but I took it that way. I find the back door so much kinder than the front. My guard isn’t up, my defences are down. When people arrive with muddy feet…well, the back door is where the mud room is…(I’m totally pushing this metaphor to the limit!)…

In yoga when I use my back body to find my way into a pose or breathe into my back body I am suddenly open to all the Grace there is hiding in the conflict or the imbalance. What before was struggle becomes ease. I love the ease of back doors.

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Lesley Reid Cross December 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Kristen, I love your openness about your wishes for your children’s experience. How do they feel about the holidays? Here, we’re pretty much nothing, in terms of religion- dh is atheist, I just have my own independent jumble of spiritual beliefs. It’s important to us for our children to make their own choices. We celebrate Christmas by tradition- more of a solstice celebration, but on the 25th, the day off- but we’ve also recognized Hannukah- talking about the religious stories of both, and of other traditional stories of solstice- looking at the similarities and often wondering why the differences that seem so trivial hold so many apart. And we enjoy all the food :-). We focus on what is fulfilling for each of us individually- dh’s Time Life Christmas Treasury cd, for me the lights and colors and finding fun things to give and wrap into gorgeous mysterious packages, for ds- the food. I love how we all find our own, as Rebecca would call them, altared spaces around the holidays. Merry Christmas and Happy Hannukah to you and your family.

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rebecca December 15, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Isn’t it true, Lesley, that we can all find our own altared spacees and not have to be at war with each other over the differences. Again, I love the idea of Kate’s (above) lawn ornaments all lit up and playing together. You seem to have invited them all inside to unpack and stay for dinner. How delicious!

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Kristen @ Motherese December 16, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Hi, Lesley. Thanks for your comment.

My kids are little – 4, 2, and 10 months – so it’s hard to say yet what they think about the holidays. Right now my 4 year old goes to a Christian preschool so he’s started to ask questions about Jesus’s birth, but mostly he and his 2 year old brother are interested in what presents they are going to get and my apparent willingness to do extra crafts. 🙂

It will be interesting to see how our family’s relationship to the holiday grows as they do.

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BigLittleWolf December 15, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Not to be glib, Kristen, but could you be worrying about this just a little too much? Is your husband against some of the Christmas traditions, merged with those of Chanukah?

Ironically, in my own marriage this particular difference was one which never posed a problem. We celebrated a little of everything, though I did make it clear to my sons what the answer to “who are you” was. Still, I made it equally clear that the holidays and traditions were different, that the concepts of giving and celebration (and a pagan tree) were compatible no matter what we called them, and that it was a time in our household for warmth and food and fun and friends.

I’m so glad my boys have wonderful memories and traditions we semi-invented for this time of year. (If you and your hubby choose to get creative, any reason you couldn’t try something similar?)

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rebecca December 16, 2011 at 1:16 pm

“a time in our household for warmth and food and fun and friends.” Yes! How can we go wrong with this? Wise words. And I love the folding in of the Pagan tree.

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Kristen @ Motherese December 16, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Well, I’m someone who thinks about most things a lot and worries about many of them too much. But this is a big question for our family – one that’s tied up in history and identity and one where the compromises we’ve tried haven’t worked yet.

I like a lot of the ecumenical solutions folks have offered here. Time will tell if they work for us.

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Cathy December 15, 2011 at 11:19 pm

It is a conflicting period. I love the interfaith dynamics. I know several people in the same shoes as you. I was raised a Christian but tend to consider myself agnostic. I celebrate Christmas only because that’s what I was raised with. Your family will be so much the wiser for the exposure. And tradition is tradition whether it’s religious or not and I think that’s what matters most.

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rebecca December 16, 2011 at 8:16 am

I love interfaith dynamics too. More so, even after this enlightening discussion.

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Kristen @ Motherese December 16, 2011 at 6:03 pm

I really like what you have to say here about tradition, Cathy. And you’re right, of course: whatever we come to do will be part of the new story our nuclear family is living.

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Brittany {Mommy Words} December 16, 2011 at 3:50 pm

It is always wonderful to find other failies who struggle with the same interfaith questions we do. I am the daughter of a minister and my husband is Jewish.

From the beginning it has been a lot of work, if I am honest. We planned and wrote our interfaith wedding, finding both a rabbi and a minister who would perform the service. I try to make as many things reflective of both of our faiths as possible, but this is certainly the hardest part of the year.

We do have a Christmas tree. It is small and sparkling and we all love it. The focus is not on gifts but on family and giving and why we celebrate Christmas. Yes, we tell the story of baby Jesus. This does not bother my husband. Jesus was born and he lived and so, his story is fine. I know it will get more complicated later, but now, it is okay.

It is somewhat easier for us, I suppose, because I do not believe in the trinity. The concept has always baffled me, and our rabbi actually laughed when we sat down with her and said well at least you have that going for you. Ha!

So, we celebrate the Jewish holidays, which I LOVE. For Chanukah we really love telling the story and the miracle and talking about light. The light we can be in the world, the miracle light we are celebrating…all light.

Somehow it works. With all the glittering lights as we drive home in the evenings, the kids talk about Chanukah and they talk about baby Jesus and how being a light in the world is like spreading love. And look at all the lights!

As an aside, because we love stories and this time of year has always been celebrated in many faiths and in pagan celebrations, we tell a lot of the winter solstice stories and talk about people around the world and how they celebrate. It helps, I think, to reinforce what we are trying to teach them. People are different and loving people is the most important thing.

Again, great to meet you. Have a wonderful holiday season!

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rebecca December 16, 2011 at 5:14 pm

“People are different and loving people is the most important thing.” did Jesus say something like this? My mother was a preacher’s kid. I’m familiar with that life.

My daughter is a Pagan, we celebrate the Light. I adore how you talk about it here. This is more than a treat to meet you today.

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Kristen @ Motherese December 16, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Thank you so much, Brittany, for sharing your experience here. I especially appreciate your acknowledging that it does take a lot of work to make these choices work. I think many of us are conditioned to celebrate religious diversity, but it’s another thing to live it when both partners feel attached to their own traditions, especially at this loaded time of year.

I love too your celebration of lights and your use of stories to build bridges between the different traditions. We are a story loving household too and yours is an inspiring and very helpful tip!

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TheKitchenWitch December 16, 2011 at 8:09 pm

I think celebrating both is beautiful. I mean, so many of our families nowadays are blended–either religiously or ethnically–and I think it’s wonderful to celebrate aspects of each. The material gifts can be small; it’s the ceremony and the togetherness that they’ll cherish.

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rebecca December 16, 2011 at 9:00 pm

“The material gifts can be small; it’s the ceremony and the togetherness that they’ll cherish.” More than Yes! And kids love and seem to easily understand a diversity of ceremony, just as easily as they speak a diversity of languages.

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Kristen @ Motherese December 19, 2011 at 8:21 pm

“The material gifts can be small.”

Try telling that to my 4yo. 😉

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Debbie December 16, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Rebecca, this is a beautiful post! It’s exactly why I knew deep in my heart I couldn’t overcome my Catholic upbringing to marry someone outside my faith. You’re so right to want to make BOTH holidays special and meaningful for your kids. I’m afraid I don’t have any advice, but I wish you peace in your December Dilemma!

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rebecca December 17, 2011 at 2:43 pm

I would never want anyone to “overcome” a Catholic upbringing. When I was at Mother Teresa’s convent, although I struggled with some things, other things were Pure Light. I would never regret the experience and carry it as one of the deepest blessings of my life. I feel so blessed that my faith tree is complicated and I love that my friends have deeply held beliefs.

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Kristen @ Motherese December 19, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Thank you, Debbie, and Merry Christmas!

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Jane December 17, 2011 at 2:56 am

Such a tricky situation. My husband and I are on different ends of the religious spectrum as well. And we struggle with a variety of issues. Carving out our own traditions has been a saving grace, of sorts. At least, it is common ground that has helped to bind us together as a couple and as a family.

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rebecca December 17, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Oooh! Now you have me leaning in. What are the traditions that have helped to bring that saving grace? I am a firm believer that the rituals we practice can bridge any divides we might have…So you’ve got me listening…

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Kristen @ Motherese December 19, 2011 at 8:31 pm

It’s interesting, isn’t it, Jane, how building that common ground can become the foundation of a strengthened connection? (That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger? Maybe?)

I wish peace and joy to you, your husband, and your kids this season.

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Sharon December 23, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Check out what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has to say on the topic:
http://www.theglobalday.com/to-chrismukkah-or-not/

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rebecca December 24, 2011 at 12:40 am

When Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz talks about “the destruction of an identity” for children who mix the two celebrations (Christmas and Chanukah) I am trying to understand. Please help me.

If a child is born into a family where a mother (or father) celebrates Christmas and a father (or mother) celebrates Chanukah isn’t their identity one of a child who might celebrate both?

Tell me where I’m wrong. Because I long to know how our stories and celebrations can speak to who we are with all our complexities.

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Debi December 26, 2011 at 11:10 pm

My kids are in their 30’s now – their children are 5 – and this year, as every year since my Jewish husband and I began – BOTH holidays are celebrated. One does not negate the other – in fact we’ve always thought they mixed especially well! Chanukah’s candles and prayers fit nicely into Christmas. For little children the easing into the holiday with a few small gifts is a delight. Love makes it all work out just fine.

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rebecca December 27, 2011 at 1:51 pm

“Love makes it all work out just fine.” Ahhh. I think this might become my mantra for 2012.

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