Saturday, December 24, 2011

Festivals of Light

The question arose in my household the other day "How can I decorate my house for the holidays without making my spouse feel like a lonely Jew?" You see, left to my own devices the other night, our house turned into a festive wonderland covered in twinkle lights and Martha Stewart tissue paper pom poms in Christmas alternative colors (teal, blue, green, and white) or what seemed to my spouse like a tacky Christmas sweater had exploded all over our living room, dining room, and kitchen. It was a bit much and offended his sensibilities of style, taste and Jewish heritage. At the time, I thought he was being a little Scrooge-ish, but I've been meditating on the incident ever since. 

I've set my mind to ponder what it might feel like to be a non-Christian at this time of year. What does it feel like to go grocery shopping, watch TV, turn on the radio, or commute home from work at 5:00?

Christmas is everywhere! Every sales clerk ends a transaction, "Merry Christmas!" Every store is decorated with holiday displays - even the hardware store. The used salesman reminds you of "the reason for the season" with an evangelical message. The radio blasts Nat King Cole's Christmas Song. And house after house is covered in twinkle lights, evergreens, and red bows. It must get a bit tiresome if you don't feel included in the revelry.

Despite his own family traditions of waking up to a surprise from Santa and getting together with family on Christmas day, my spouse has an inherent since that Christmas is not his holiday. It doesn't belong to him. Even with his interfaith stocking hung on my parents mantle and our amalgamation of decorations at our house, sometimes, he still feels like this: 

<div style="background-color:#000000;width:368px;"><div style="padding:4px;"><embed src="" width="360" height="293" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowFullScreen="true" allowScriptAccess="always" base="." flashVars=""></embed><p style="text-align:left;background-color:#FFFFFF;padding:4px;margin-top:4px;margin-bottom:0px;font-family:Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;font-size:12px;"><b><a href="">Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo</a></b><br/>Get More: <a style="display: block; position: relative; top: -1.33em; float: right; font-weight: bold; color: #ffcc00; text-decoration: none" href="">SOUTH<br/>PARK</a><a href="">more...</a></p></div></div>

The point was further driven home when his aunt came over the other night while I was unpacking my sixth and final box of decorations and she reveled in the plethora of holiday paraphernalia and the fact that each item had a story and sentimental value. From the Christmas tree china my aunt has been giving me piece by piece since I was born to ornaments collected on summer vacations to miniature tinsel trees I got on a killer sale from Iron Gate each item represents precious memories that enhance my Christmas spirit every time I look at them. She can't remember if she has ever decorated a tree before. Per her request, next year, she is coming over when I open up the first box and we're trimming the tree together. I can't wait to share that tradition with her!

While I don't know what it feels like to be left out of Christmas, there is a time of year when I do tend to be in the outsider role. The prayers and message of Yom Kippor always make me a little left out because it is the time of year when Jews remember why it is so important to be Jews and how difficult that has been through the ages. I can't help but feel I've contributed to the difficulty. It's not intentional, and the rhetoric has become more inclusive every year. But it simply isn't my holiday. I appreciate its beauty and its message of repentance, forgiveness and hope for the future, and the celebration of tradition, culture, and relationship with God, but I feel outside of it.

Thankfully, I've had this experience. These are the moments in life that make me more empathetic.

Luckily, this season, our rabbi wrote this article about sharing Hanukkah with non-Jews. It's about the universal appeal of light in the darkest time of year. His words help me see Hanukkah in a new light (pun intended). And it got me thinking, if the message of Hanukkah can be shared, can the message Christmas, too? And was is the take home message of Christmas?

For me, Christmas is the birth of hope in the world. It is a reminder I need every year, especially when winter puts its chilled, gray tinge on everything. The hope is what I saw in Janet and Innocent, Frederick and Matthias in Rwanda. People who overcame hate and learned to love and be loved again. Christmas hope means humans can overcome the worst of ourselves and become the best of ourselves. We, as humans divinely made, can be at war with one another and eventually find peace. We can go from being enemies to reconciled neighbors. This is the hope of the baby Jesus I wish to share with my spouse and his family.

So, can the lights and songs, the ridiculous sweaters and hats, the well wishing and egg nog remind us all that we can be good neighbors to each other? Can it help us all remember that hope exists or does it take something more?

I've toned back the decorations now not because my Christmas spirit is diminished by my husband's feelings of being left out, but because the Festivals of Light shine brightest through humility. He reminded me of that.

Imagine the single burning lamp in the midst of a ruined temple - one bright, beautiful point of light that brought with it the relief of being free. Imagine the sweet scent of a little baby cooing softly in his mother's arms surrounded by weary travelers and barnyard odors who brought with him the newness of life and new dreams for a better future. These images bring us hope because we see the beauty amidst the dirt and grime and sadness of everyday life. Too much tinsel blinds us to the juxtaposition. I've pared down so the lights can bring us both hope through the mundane.

We still have some work to do figuring out how we can include each other in our winter traditions. I've learned the blessing sung when lighting the Menorah candles and my husband has learned how to hang twinkle lights on our roof. It may be time for us to forge a new tradition that binds the old ones together so neither of us feels left out and so the lights of the season fill us with hope in one another.

Monday, December 19, 2011

It's Okay to Be Different - Let's Celebrate Both

My sister made this in kindergarten ten years before I started dating my Jewish spouse. It is now his stocking, which hangs proudly on my parents' mantle. Thank you Mrs. Ackerman!

Our Chrismukkah mantle last year
I love the winter festivals because they have so much in common. Each holiday is a cultural reaction to the universal human need for light in the darkest time of year. We all need hope that the light and warmth of spring will return. The light also represents hope in humanity. Someday we will be our best selves and goodness and peace will blossom here on earth. How we go about bringing that light into our lives through the darkness differs, but they are all fun, yummy, and meaningful. This is why, in my family, we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. Turns out we're not the only ones! Check out Susan Katz Miller's post from her blog On Being Both and her article from the Huffington Post.

What concerns me, however, is the reaction Susan got from her Post article. So many feel that celebrating more than one tradition dilutes them all. I simply disagree. As Todd Parr says, "it's okay to be different," and our differences make us beautiful. So, here is another lesson from kindergarten.

Before the winter break, I get to teach my favorite unit: the festivals of light. It is the culmination of work started before Thanksgiving that celebrates the richness of our diverse country. What I find remarkable is that the celebrations have so many beautiful similarities. In November, I lay the foundation for the study with the unit called "we are all the same because we are all different." I read books by Todd Parr and give a presentation about the factual Harvest Feast of 1621(called the first Thanksgiving) using Scholastic's amazing virtual field trip to weave in the theme of sharing our differences and gifts with others. We celebrate our differences when we read different versions of Stone Soup. When we make our own soup, the students realize it would be far less tasty if there was only one ingredient instead of 17 different ones. That gets translated back to our classroom community where it starts to sink in that our differences are what make our class special and interesting.
The themes that link the winter festivals are beautiful - hope-giving light, the anticipation of spring, celebrations that bring family and friends together, giving to show thanksgiving, eating foods that help us feel connected to our cultural roots, and telling stories that remind us good will out. This is why I have no qualms about celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, and Ayyam-i-Ha all together.

This year, I have a student who is a practicing Baha'i. This child's parents are good teachers of their fatih and advocates for diverse religious representation in the classroom. From what I have learned so far, one of the main beliefs of the Baha'i is the oneness of God. Their winter festival is Ayyam-i-Ha, which celebrates charity, unity, and faith in God. I'm so excited to add this holiday to our repertoire. In February, we will make a service wreath to count down the days until the celebration. It is a lot like an advent wreath, but each card will have a service project on it. I'm starting to feel like Baha'is do a better job of celebrating the true meaning of Christmas than some of us Christians do.

Our wreath will look something like this, except on each card there will be an act of kindness I will challenge the students to perform.

This year, we will continue to celebrate both. For Hanukkah, we will give thanks that God works miracles. When we light the menorah and say the blessings, we will remember that we are connected to a rich tradition of being in relationship with God. Our hope that comes from God may sometimes be as small as a candle's flame, but it is eternal. When we light the Christmas tree, we will give thanks that God sends hope into the world. Sometimes it is in the form of a little baby born humbly in a manger. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a reconciliation village in Rwanda, in new friendships formed, or in the right words said at the right time. For us this year, it truly comes in the form of a baby boy. This child bears the hope of our hearts that we will raise a diplomat who can speak two religious languages and find God by multiple paths - a child who sees we are more the same than we are different, but our differences make us beautiful.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Stop being busy and listen!

There are times when God's voice is as subtle as the brushes of a butterfly's wing that are my unborn child's first kicks. Then there are times when it is as loud the blast of an organ pipe. Yet it is most discernible when God speaks to me through the voice of a child.

At the school where I teach, the tradition in the kindergarten is to make gingerbread houses in December. It is a fun and tasty experience for the children and a lot of prep work for the teachers. The morning of our "build," I had to be out of the classroom for about twenty minutes before the event was to take place. Therefore, I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off from the moment I walked in my classroom door. Finally, just before we were about to start, I sat down with my students, took a deep, centering breath and said, "Friends, I'm sorry I've been so busy this morning. This time of year, there is so much going on, grown-ups tend to get a little crazy." I was about to explain the gingerbread making procedure when a hand went up. I called on the little boy and he said, "Mrs. Haber, in the Bible it says that right now, you're supposed to stop being busy and listen." From the mouth of babes we hear truth. It is so easy to forget this is the season of waiting and watching. Thank you, sweet child for reminding me what the Christ child means - peace.