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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, April 17, 2014

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In Holiday Guide

Chrismukkah, anyone?

Families celebrate multiple December holidays differently


For some interfaith families, the media-coined "December dilemma" of which holiday to celebrate might actually exist. For others, it's just not a big deal – they agree on a single spiritual pathway or they embrace multiple wintertime rituals.

In any case, although somewhat controversial, it's a private decision based on what bodes best for the individual family.

I grew up with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother – a former nun, no less – who decided to recognize both Christmas and Hanukkah.

We focused on the particulars of both: the candle lighting and the tree trimming and combined the two at times. Matzo ball soup and Christmas cookies; stories of both the guiding star and the oil that burned for eight nights.

Kids always told my sister and I that we were lucky because we got more presents than they did. This was probably not true – I think they were just divvied up between the two holidays – but we did consider ourselves lucky because we got to keep the joy and merriment spinning like a tireless dreidel.

Hannah Fein was raised this way as well, but when she had her son five years ago, she and her husband decided to do it differently. Fein converted to Judaism, something she originally did not plan to do when she got married.

"It's OK if (her son) picks another religion when he gets older, but I wanted to present just one as a starting place. I think it's less confusing," says Fein. "I think I became more of a purest once I became a parent."

Stephanie Bolewski Bennett and her two children are not Jewish, but after moving in with her Jewish partner and his two Jewish children earlier this year, they decided to give it all a whirl.

Hence, in the windows of their Fox Point home, they have one window with a lit menorah and the other with a sparkling Christmas tree featuring a Star of David ornament. They hung Hanukkah stockings that were later filled with letters from St. Nick filled along with chocolate coins, Hanukkah cookies, dreidels and latke bingo.

"I had to get creative on how to incorporate their beliefs and practices into our traditions," says Bennett, who was raised Christian. "It's been quite educational for our kids. It's not 50/50 in décor at this point but you can bet I'll have it that way in time."

Bennett also introduced her annual tradition of making cut-out cookies to her new Jewish family members. This year, however, the cookie cutter selections included a menorah, dreidel and Star of David with the usual Santas and stockings.

"In our household in the past, it was always about what Santa was bringing, making nine different holiday cookies, eating well and giving back to those less fortunate," she says. "I'm not a fan of religion in general, as I feel it tears people apart rather than bring them together."

Angela McManaman and her husband, Sachin Chheda, live in Bay View with their three children. They identify themselves as Christian and they celebrate a low-key Christmas, in part, because most of Chheda's family lives in India.

"My husband celebrated Christmas as a secular American event with a tree, presents and everything, even though his parents were Jain. And they celebrated all the Indian holidays, including Diwali," says McManaman.

This year, McManaman and her family celebrated Diwali in Mumbai, India.

"Watching children make rangolis at their doorstep, lighting the oil lanterns – that was lovely," says McManaman, who grew up celebrating St. Nick's with her Polish South Side family, but stopped celebrating it with her kids because she kept forgetting what day it was.

Also this year, the family celebrated Hanukkah.

"Five years ago, we might never eat a latke all year. This year we celebrated three nights of Hanukkah thanks to invitations and visits from wonderful friends," says McManaman.

McManaman says her 8-year-old used to feel "sad" for his friends who didn't celebrate Christmas or receive Christmas gifts. But this year, after he celebrated Hanukkah he asked if they could have both tree lights and a menorah.

"So now he knows December holiday celebrations can be great fun, no gifts required. As much as you try to tell your kids that, obviously, it's most effective when they grasp the concept for themselves," she says.

Regardless of the chosen December holiday, children thrive on ritual and a feeling that their parents are united in presenting a family culture, whatever it might be.

All of the wintertime holidays have their similarities and in some way celebrate light, proving that religions co-evolve, influence each other and respond to the same human desires to give, to receive and to love.

Or maybe Wauwatosa's Michael Davis has the answer.

"Let's all just celebrate Festivus and be done with it," says Davis.

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