It's been a long two weeks around the Roberts household. Since we're a Jewish-Catholic couple we celebrate both traditions, and as one holiday ended we immediately started preparing for the next. The wax drippings from the Chanukah candles were still visible on a coffee table as the guests arrived for Christmas dinner.
We've fed well more than a hundred people; and now a landfill worth of trash, all soggy from a winter rain, still decorates our back yard. But our favorite scenes of sthe season focus on faith and friends and family, as our tribe, like yours, practiced the annual rituals that define who we are.
The Jewish star on the top of our Christmas tree -- a rather shabby cardboard ornament, handcrafted by a child decades ago and much repaired -- symbolizes our devotion to diversity. This devotion has not always been easy. Clergy tend to emphasize differences between faiths rather than similarities, and when we tell people we've raised our children in both religions, we get plenty of skeptical looks.
So we were pleased to find a children's book this year about a family that celebrates both Chanukah and Christmas -- just like us. In "Light the Lights," author Margaret Moorman gently uses the symbolism of Chanukah candles and Christmas bulbs to tell the story of a young girl whose parents, while coming from different backgrounds, have a lot in common.
We bought this book at a Jewish community center in Ann Arbor, Mich., a few months after Washington Hebrew, the capital's oldest Jewish congregation, announced that two of its rabbis would now perform interfaith marriages. We have long believed that rabbis who refuse to bless such matches are making a huge mistake. They will not stop the couple from marrying; rather, they will only drive the young family away from the Jewish community. But now that two out of five Jews in the Washington area marry outside their faith, reality has overtaken resistance.
"Too many people were hurt and felt their temple had turned them away," Hank Levine, the congregation's president, told Washington Jewish Week. "I had a number of people say, 'What took you so long,'" added David Vise, a former president.
At our Chanukah party, most of the guests are mixed religious couples. Some are raising their kids Jewish, others Christian, and a few as both. But they share a belief that Chanukah and Christmas reflect the same elemental human yearning: for hope and redemption, peace and goodwill.
One favorite scene from the season: a dinner between the two holidays, when three of our grandchildren shared a table with their two parents, four grandparents and two great grandmothers. The kids were too young to fully grasp the magic of the moment, but traditions have a way of re-seeding themselves and taking root in the next generation.
That meal took place in a house that Cokie's parents occupied for 25 years. We've now lived in it for 29, and it has always been the focus of the family's Christmas. As toddlers our own children opened presents on the sunlit porch where their children now perform the same ritual.
On Christmas night, the extended family gathers for an annual dinner, and the menu barely varies: turkey, goose, smoked ham, and Jerusalem artichokes. The artichokes, brought from Louisiana a half-century ago by Cokie's Dad, are a root vegetable that come back every year, without re-planting, in our back garden. Only one (and very welcome) change: our son-in-law has as taken over the cleaning, peeling and cooking of this holiday staple.
This year, several young parents who once attended this dinner as infants in arms carried children of their own. In fact we had two baby girls making their first appearance, both in velvet dresses, one red, the other black. And what struck us most about the evening was how the generations took care of each other.
At one point the black-clad babe was cradled in the arms of a 14-year-old girl (their parents are first cousins). At another, a nine-year-old boy, without being asked, was cutting a slice of turkey for a 2-year-old (their parents are also first cousins). At the end of the evening, a dear friend and neighbor, the mother of our godchild, was last seen helping Steve's 87-year-old mother to her car.
So that's what this holiday season was all about for us: families holding on to traditions, and to each other. A teenager comforting a baby. Isn't that what Mary, a young Jewish girl, did at the first Christmas?