For interfaith families, Christmas celebrates commonality
On the eighth night of Hanukkah, Shelly Tygielski, her son Liam Asayag and her husband, Jason Tygielski, lit the candles of the menorah, which sat on a dining table next to a tall Christmas tree.
Shelly was born in Israel and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. Jason grew up Catholic, and was confirmed at age 13. But nowadays, they identify with Buddhism more than any other religion.
Still, they keep tradition. They celebrate most Jewish holidays, have a full Christmas Eve dinner and open presents on Christmas Day in their home in Lighthouse Point, Fla.
“I grew up with a lot of different religious beliefs. I think they’re all pretty cool,” says Liam, 13. “But it’s different than my friends because my friends are mostly Jewish, and my Christian friends are just Christian. They don’t celebrate Hanukkah or anything. And when they come in the house, they’re like, ‘Why do you have a Christmas tree and you’re Jewish?’”
But for Liam it’s simple. He says it gives him “a chance to explore new ideas and beliefs.” He also enjoys the presents.
It wasn’t always so easy, however. When Shelly and Jason decided to get married, her parents didn’t talk to them for almost a year because Jason wasn’t Jewish. With time though, they accepted the Tygielskis’ way of life. They share Shabbat dinner with Shelly’s mother at least twice a month.
“For me, it’s just a chance for us all to get together,” says Jason, 50. “I think if it wasn’t for the Jewish holidays, I don’t think I would have the relationship I have with her extended family ... which is a very good one. While I’m not a religious person, I think tradition is good.”
He says his Christmas would probably not be the same if it wasn’t for his Jewish wife. Shelly decorates the house with Christmas lights, cooks a full dinner, including turkey and ham, and Jason’s parents fly in from North Carolina and Maryland to spend the holidays with them.
“I kind of came here at a really young age. So I was really exposed to Christmas and Santa Claus,” Shelly, 37, recalls. “For me it was almost like this fulfillment of this childhood fantasy that I had that I would be able to one day decorate a tree, and do Christmas Eve dinner. It’s nice.”
Two children, two faiths
When Sadia Raja Alfonso and Carlos Alfonso got married at Jungle Island in 2009, a Muslim imam and a Catholic priest presided.
They wore traditional Pakistani attire for the ceremony. Then she changed into a white gown and he into a Cuban guayabera for the reception. The decorations were inspired by Morocco, and they danced salsa and merengue all night long.
Now the parents of two children, Leyla, 4, and Mikael, 4 months, they celebrate and cherish both religions, Islam and Catholicism. On Sunday, they decorated their “Frozen”-themed Christmas tree in their house in Coral Gables, Fla. Sadia has a Pakistani and Lebanese background, but grew up in Dubai. She says some aspects of Christmas remind her of Eid al-Adha, the holiday at the end of Ramadan.
“I feel the more you share and the more you get to know people in an intimate level you find more similarities,” says Sadia, 36. “In the beginning, of course, everybody notices the differences, but there are a lot more similarities.”
Carlos, who’s Cuban-American, also takes part in Muslim traditions, celebrating the Eids and adopting Muslim traditions during Ramadan.
“Not a lot of people get to see these cross-cultural relationships, and, really, the unique thing is how similar and how much family is the same whether you’re here or you’re across the world,” says Carlos, 39. “Parents care about the same thing. Grandparents care about the same thing.”
The crossing of cultures is evident even in their home’s decorations. The Christmas tree stands a few feet from the first chapter of the Quran, hanging on a wall. Their wedding photos of the couple wearing Pakistani attire sit next to a nutcracker and snowflake decorations atop the fireplace.
They speak English to each other, but will speak Spanish, Arabic and Urdu to their children. They go to church and mosque.
“Not everybody agrees with our way of life,” she says. “I’m sure people worry about our children’s salvation, and they don’t need to worry about it.”
For the Alfonsos, it’s all about teaching their children how to be good.
“We want our kids to have fun with it, and enjoy it,” she says. “We don’t want them to feel God is one way or another. God is God.”
A Caribbean Christmas
Growing up Hindu in Trinidad, Anusha Rampersad believed in Santa Claus, decorated Christmas trees and received presents on Christmas.
She didn’t learn about Jesus Christ, however, until the moved to the United States at age 7.
She says in Trinidad and in other places in the Caribbean, Christmas is a tradition most people celebrate regardless of religion.
“It’s really a tradition that everybody follows. It didn’t matter if you really believed in Jesus or not because the majority of people who were Muslims still celebrated,” says Anusha, 33. “I didn’t really think about it until after I got older, but I mean, I love Christmas. Who doesn’t like Christmas?”
Her husband, Derek Rampersad, is also from Trinidad but is Presbyterian. They share each other’s traditions. Besides Christmas, they also celebrate Divali and other Hindu holidays. Their house in Coconut Creek is decorated with Christmas lights, wreaths, snowman knickknacks, miniatures of Santa Claus and a tall Christmas tree. They also have statues of the Hindu god Ganesha by their front door and by their TV stand.
“I think the good thing is that we don’t say this is your holiday and you take care of it. And this is my holiday and this is how it would be. We celebrate each other’s holidays just the same we would on any other day,” says Derek, 42. “She has to do things in her time of the year, and I’m her husband so I have to support her.”
Although they don’t have children yet, they already plan how to raise them.
“When we eventually have kids, our kids would be able to know two different religions. It’s up to them. I’ve known people and I’ve seen families with two different religions. I want to have that when I have kids,” Anusha says.
“I have family who are Presbyterian and Christian and Muslim. Everything. And all of them celebrate Christmas.”