The true dilemma is trying to celebrate the holidays in an authentic and meaningful way while coping with the expectations of families and communities.

Every year on Christmas Eve, I serve my husband, children, and in-laws a Polish feast consisting of dill pickle soup, pierogis, and several other dishes that have many silent letters and strange consonant-to-vowel ratios. Among these dishes is the bane of my December — czernina. Czernina is the Polish word for duck blood soup. Yes, there really is duck blood in the soup. Not one for handling blood, I instead go down to Hamtramck and just buy the soup. Except every year there is some crisis. The grocery store is sold out. The restaurant is unexpectedly closed. The czernina has noodles instead of dumplings. The only one available has dried fruit in it (a common point between Polish and Jewish cuisines).

At least once in this horror show I will likely be on the verge of a panic attack, wondering what a Jewish girl is doing running around to every Polish establishment in 20 squares miles in an attempt not to ruin Christmas.

Alicia Chandler
Alicia Chandler

But this annual crisis has nothing to do with me being Jewish, and the Polish feast has nothing to do with Christianity. This is about recreating my husband’s holiday memories of Christmases past and passing down these holiday traditions for our children.

For other holidays, we have aspects that are traditional — such as the gefilte fish for Rosh Hashanah that we make at my mother’s house using my Bubbie’s recipe as my father complains about the fish making the house smell. We also have aspects that we created ourselves — such as our Passover seder complete with singing the story of the Exodus to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Holidays come with tension — when do we stick with tradition, when do we create something new, what do we do when something inevitably goes wrong, and how do we agree as a couple what each holiday should look like for our family? And then, what happens when a parent or sibling disagrees with the choices we have made? Do we stick with our decision or is it back to the drawing board?

This dilemma may be more apparent when you see both a Christmas tree and a menorah in the window, but it exists for everyone in ways big or small. Do you celebrate Chanukah with latkes or sufganiyot? Do you prefer sour cream or applesauce? Light candles on the first night with his family or hers? Do you go with the traditional gifts of gelt, books and socks or do a Chanukah filed with an abundance (or overabundance) of toys?

Marriage can be a negotiation of making two lives into one — and holidays are often the lynchpin of the negotiation. Maybe the disagreements are religious in nature, but more likely they are conflicts about the expectations around holidays and the vision for what family life looks like. This is true no matter which holidays you are celebrating this December.

The true dilemma is trying to celebrate the holidays in an authentic and meaningful way while coping with the expectations of families and communities. Traditions may evolve over time as people come and go from our families. But the heart of the holidays remains: gathering with family, friends and food to celebrate miracles.

Through give and take, communication and compromise, I hope that we can create a December that is full of meaning, light on stress, and — in my case — abundant in both czernina and latkes.

Alicia Chandler is the founder of Multfaith Life LLC, which helps institutions and the Jewish community adapt to interfaith families.

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