By Emma Wunsch
‘Tis the season for holiday cheer and traditions! Whether you’re hanging up the ornaments your children made decades ago or decorating a Dreidel with a toddler, the holiday season is a wonderful time to share your families’ traditions and to discover new ones.
Four Special Gifts from Mom and Dad
With a goal of minimizing the perceived commercialism of the holiday season, Corin Benedict, teacher at The Family Place, and her family celebrate the holidays by giving their six-year-old son four gifts that are clearly from his parents — not Santa Claus.
Each Christmas, her son gets something he wants, something he needs, something to wear and something to read. Even though it’s not an excess of gifts, Corin says her son is always pleased because the four presents are truly special — like a hardcover compilation of superhero stories or a long desired Lego set. Practical gifts are appreciated — bigger ice skates or new skis promise a winter’s worth of fun. Corin also likes to get creative: one year she gave her son a Wild Kratts costume under the “something to wear” category. To keep pace with the social conversation about Christmas presents in his classroom, an additional gift from “Magic” Santa was introduced.
The Benedict family values spending time as a family during the holidays. After opening presents, they do something active outdoors together — ice skating, a short local hike or skiing. This Christmas, the family will spend the holidays skiing and playing in the water park at Jay Peak in Jay, Vermont. Because of this “experience heavy” family gift, this year’s four presents will be a little smaller than usual and focus on the vacation. Says Corin, “Something he wants may be two rolls of quarters to spend in the arcade!”
Interfaith and International
Grantham mom Jamielynn Garland is Jewish and her in-laws are Mormon. Her goal is to connect her six-year-old son with both faiths. Her family often visits the Joseph Smith Memorial in Royalton when it opens Thanksgiving Day. One year, she explained the story of Hanukah to visiting Mormon missionaries. With a nod to Santa’s sack, Jamielynn’s son gets a “Hanukah sack” for the each of the eight days of the Festival of Lights. After they light the candles and say the Hanukah prayers, her son chooses one gift each night.
Philippines native Myra Kebalka remembers Christmas as a very big deal with holiday jingles and commercials starting as early as September. Now that she and her New Hampshire native husband, Rob, are raising their six-year-old daughter in Lebanon, Myra tries to incorporate Filipino traditions into her family’s holiday celebrations. Before Christmas Day, Myra and her daughter use cellophane to decorate a paról — an ornamental, star-shaped Christmas lantern made of sticks or bamboo that hangs in windows throughout the Philippines.
Although she doesn’t stay up till midnight for the traditional noche buena dinner anymore, the Kebalkas have an elaborate Christmas Eve dinner with traditional Filipino food such as queso de bola (cheese ball) and ham. Every Christmas season, Myra and her family get together with other Filipino families in the area to eat traditional Filipino foods, speak Tagalog and exchange gifts.
For her part, Myra has embraced American traditions such as making gingerbread houses and the annual family outing to choose a tree at Nichols Farm in Lyme.
For half-Jewish Woodstock native Jessica Friedman and her Danish husband, Tony Hanberg, the holidays are about embracing their two cultures. Hanukah celebrations are traditional with eating latkes, playing dreidel, and lighting the menorah but, for Christmas, Jessica and Tony incorporate many Danish traditions into their Lebanon home. They have a traditional Christmas Eve feast but with Danish foods like flæskesteg, traditional Danish roast pork, potatoes, and risalamande, a rich rice pudding made with whipped cream and served with cherry sauce. In typical Danish fashion, a whole almond is added into the risalamande. The guest who finds the special almond gets a small present as a prize.
After the Christmas Eve feast, Jessica, Tony and their children sing Danish Christmas carols and dance around the Christmas tree. Unlike the typical Danish home, they do not decorate their tree with lit candles, but their 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son do open all their presents, delivered by Santa or Julemanden from Greenland, on Christmas Eve.
Although the demographic of the Upper Valley is primarily Judeo-Christian, there are many families who do not celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah. Prior to moving to the Upper Valley with his wife and two children last fall, Dartmouth College’s Muslim & Multi-Faith Advisor, Sharif Rosen, lived in Amman, Jordan. Muslims comprise 95% of Jordan’s population and nearly one-fifth of the global population.
Sharif says his children became aware of Christmas while in Jordan because although the non-Muslim population of Jordan is tiny, the prevalence of Christmas is felt worldwide. Rather than religious, Sharif sees the appropriation of Christmas trees and Santa Claus as the influence of western culture in the same way that some Muslims have to come to adopt celebrations of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day.
When it comes to celebrating holidays, their kids ask the inevitable questions about celebrating Christmas. When they do, Sharif and his wife, Briann, emphasize that while they must always respect other people’s religions and holidays, the Rosen family is blessed with its sacred Islamic traditions, celebrations and beliefs. Moreover, they explain to their children that Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet and messenger of God and his teachings can be learned and applied without participating in the holiday bearing his name.
For observant Muslims, every day is a thanksgiving, as they make gratitude a constant daily reality — right up to the prayers that are said before and after every meal. Lessons in gratitude, patience and honesty are central to Muslim life and comprise a large part of the perpetual consciousness of God for which devout Muslims strive.
Sharif and Briann remind their children that while Christian children get one day of Christmas and Jewish children get eight days of Hanukah, Muslim children get 30 days of celebration with nightly feasts at sundown that occur throughout Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of Fasting. Then there are additional three days of joy and merriment to mark the end of Ramadan called Eid al-Fitr. Although children do not fast during Ramadan, they do eat the delicious, nightly celebratory feast. During Eid al-Fitr, the holiday is marked by reconnecting with loved ones, hosting meals and lots of gift-giving.
Generational Family Traditions
Before her children were grown, Susan Israel of Hanover had special themes for each of the eight nights of Hanukah. There was always a book night in which all the presents were books, an aunt-and-uncle or grandparent night, when the gifts came from relatives other than Mom and Dad. To foster the Jewish tenet of tzedakah (charity), Susan made sure there was one night when her children would donate gifts or money to a charity. Susan is now a grandmother, but her children continue the tradition of themed Hanukah nights with their own families.
No matter what your family celebrates, the holiday season is a wonderful opportunity to connect with loved ones, embrace family traditions, foster charity, and learn how other families celebrate the holidays.