Interfaith’s ‘December dilemma’

Families celebrate both Christmas, Hanukkah customs

Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005

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Photos byLaurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Five-year-old Connor Priester helps his mom, Susan decorate Christmas and Hanukkah cookies (above) on Sunday. The family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah.

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The Priester family spent a lot of time baking cookies this month. They baked Christmas cookies. And they baked Hanukkah cookies.

That’s because the Priesters are an interfaith family who have decided to celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas.

Double the holidays, double the cookies.

As if the holidays weren’t stressful enough, interfaith families have the added problem — or pleasure, depending on how you look at it — of two celebrations and all of the individual traditions of each.

It’s called the December dilemma, said Ellen Jennings, director of religious education and acting spiritual director of the Interfaith Family Project of Greater Washington, a Takoma Park organization that teaches about both Judaism and Christianity.

‘‘For families who are celebrating both [holidays], it becomes how are we going to celebrate,” she said. ‘‘How do we teach our kids, what are the stories that we tell that explain these holidays?”

For the Priester family of Kensington, that means hanging Christmas lights and lighting Hanukkah candles.

‘‘The traditions have just sort of developed,” Susan Priester said.

The family lights a menorah for Hanukkah and hosts a Hanukkah party with dreidels, latkes and donuts. They also hang Christmas lights, decorate a tree and bake cookies for each holiday.

‘‘We’re always baking cookies,” she said.

While keeping up the traditions of two faiths can be a lot of work, Priester said it’s important to do both.

‘‘We want to be respectful of each tradition,” she said.

‘‘We’re interested in helping our kids connect the similarities.”

Participating in charity events, such as donating toys to needy children — and involving her own kids in the activity — is one way to emphasize values that both religions share, said Potomac resident Deborah Schaumberg.

‘‘One thing that both faiths share is charity,” she said. ‘‘That’s one way to bridge the gap and to keep the giving spirit of the holidays alive.”

Schaumberg said the biggest issue in her interfaith family is making sure that her two daughters, ages 7 and 5, understand the meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas.

‘‘It’s helping the kids understand the significance of each holiday, because we do both,” she said. ‘‘We want to help them understand both and learn the songs and prayers for each holiday.”

A challenge, she said is communicating to her kids that the holidays are about more than just getting presents.

‘‘They love the fact that they get Hanukkah and Christmas presents,” she said, ‘‘but we want to show them that it’s about more.”

Most of the families involved with the Interfaith Family Project do some sort of charity project around the holidays to make the time of year more meaningful and less about presents, Jennings said.

There are a large number of interfaith families in the Washington metropolitan area, said Interfaith Family Project Program Coordinator Susan Ryder, although she did not know how many. Most of the group’s membership lives in Silver Spring and Takoma Park, but the group serves families from Northern Virginia through Olney, she said.

While interfaith families may face some daunting hurdles in the form of disapproving in-laws or struggles over conflicting rituals, in some ways, they have it easier during the holidays.

‘‘You don’t have to play the pick a parents game,” Priester said. ‘‘It makes it easier.”

Rena and Kent Dirckx of Chevy Chase agreed.

‘‘It works out easier because on Hanukkah we go over to visit Rena’s parents and on Christmas we go to my family’s,” Kent Dirckx said. ‘‘We don’t really have conflicts about whose family to see on Christmas Day. It’s not really a problem for us.”

The holidays have always been a special time spent with family, Rena Dirckx said, but this year is especially meaningful because it is the first holiday season for the couple’s 7-month-old son.

‘‘This is the first time we’ll celebrate with our son and we want to start new traditions,” Rena said.

Those traditions will, of course, incorporate both faiths.

The Dirckxs said that before their son was born, they decided that they wanted to give their child a religious education.

‘‘There’s kind of different ways to raise a child interfaith,” Kent said. ‘‘Some families blend everything together. These are very distinct religions and traditions. We made a decision to teach our son both of them. So when he gets older, he’ll know these are real choices with meaning.”