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CHRISTMAS, HANUKKAH -- OR BOTH?

With all the holiday commercialism that clogs the city at this time of year, it's sometimes important to sit back and reflect on what really matters. This year, my family will have two holy days on which to do this: Christmas and Hanukkah.

As a product of my Roman Catholic mother's marriage to my Jewish father, I grew up in a very "multicultural" home. In my mother's home, Christmas was an important event, replete with church-going, family togetherness, gift exchange and, of course, a Christmas tree.

In my father's home, Hanukkah was celebrated sporadically. The menorah was lighted occasionally, and sometimes a dreidel was brought out or Hanukkah gelt exchanged.

The holiday traditions in my parents' respective childhood homes contributed to the traditions in mine: Chrismas and Hanukkah are both celebrated, but Christmas is clearly the dominant tradition.

As I found out from interviews with several other multicultural families, this is not the case everywhere.

Cynthia Stark is raising her children to be Jewish, like her husband, David. Even so, the Starks celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, and their home has a small Christmas tree in addition to their many Hanukkah decorations. The tree itself is decorated with Hanukkah gelt and dreidels. Snowflakes and other winter decorations made by the kids at school adorn the walls, in addition to the tree and the menorah, which is lighted for the eight days of Hanukkah.

"The children have accepted that Santa leaves their presents at my mother's house," says Mrs. Stark. The Stark children collect their gifts and enjoy a Christmas Eve feast at the home of their grandparents. At this traditional meal, the kids enjoy putting on plays and singing Christmas carols (the occasional Hanukkah song pops up as well). The Starks attend temple and spin the dreidel at home for Hanukkah.

Mary Hayes and her husband, Michael Kohrman, go to church on Christmas. They have a tree and a menorah in their home, and this year, for the first time, Hanukkah decorations are going up at the same time as the Christmas decorations. (Hanukkah begins at sundown today, and lasts for eight days.) Ms. Hayes and her husband read both Christmas and Hanukkah stories to their son, Abraham. A Hanukkah meal is usually part of the celebration, and the family tries to invite at least one person who has no place to go for the holidays to this special dinner.

At Christmastime, Bob Fleming's out-of-town relatives come for a visit and to exchange Christmas presents. The Flemings have a Christmas tree, and they also light the menorah for Hanukkah.

"Growing up, my family didn't celebrate all eight days of Hanukkah," said Ruth Fleming, explaining the family's approach to Hanukkah. The Flemings do not attend church or temple; instead, they have traditional meals at their house for each holiday. The kids get one Hanukkah present each from Mrs. Fleming's parents.

In my home, Christmas is usually celebrated with a big dinner at either our house or my maternal grandmother's home. We exchange gifts with my mom's side of the family on Christmas, and with my father's side of the family at our annual Hanukkah meal in my paternal grandparents' home. We stock our car with Christmas tapes, and at our Hanukkah celebration, we light the menorah and eat latkes and brisket.

Our home is decorated with a wreath and a huge Christmas tree, as well as a small menorah. My mother, brothers and I attend Mass on Christmas Eve. We bake Hanukkah cookies in the shape of dreidels, menorahs and stars of David. We read stories about both Christmas and Hanukkah.

My family practices dual traditions in more ways than these holiday celebrations. My brother, Devin, and I both attended my mother's alma mater, Mount St. Joseph's Academy, where we learned the Our Father and the Hail Mary. At my maternal grandmother's, we say a Catholic blessing before we eat. We learned prayers to say before bed from our grandmother.

For several summers, Devin and I attended day camp at Camp Centerland, where our father went when he was little. At Camp Centerland, we learned the Hebrew blessing over the bread, and we celebrated Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath day, every Friday. (The actual Sabbath falls on Saturday for Jews.)

My mother attends yoga classes taught by a Jewish woman in an Episcopalian church. My brother and I took religion classes at Mount St. Joe's, and we know the story of Christmas and Hanukkah. We attend plays about both cultures.

With the exception of the Starks, every family I talked with said that their holiday celebrations were not focused solely on religion. Ms. Hayes explained that her family's traditions are more "cultural" than religious. The Fleming celebrations are more focused on tradition than religion.

My family's traditions have more religious significance for my mother; for my dad, they are more culturally defining. Because neither Christmas nor Hanukkah is the most important religious holiday for either Christians or Jews, the fact that most people's winter holiday traditions are more cultural than religious is not surprising.

Whatever you celebrate or don't celebrate this year, it's important to think about some of the ideas that this season, and these holidays, are supposed to stand for. Peace, love, generosity -- these are ideals that we can all strive to maintain, whether you're Christian, Jew or atheist.

When I share these traditions with the different members of my family, I think that I'm twice as lucky as many people I know. Not only do I get twice the cultural traditions, twice the religious reflection and twice the holiday cheer, but I get twice the presents as well.

Raina Lipsitz is a sophomore at City Honors.

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