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Making MY Own True Meaning in Interfaith Holiday Celebrations
Lynnette Li

Lynnette Li

Columnist, Repurposing Family Culture at the Parent Voice, Magazine
Lynnette Li is a performing artist, music teacher, and part-time-stay-at-home mom. She grew up the eldest of three children in Metro Detroit, U.S., to immigrant parents who identify as Chinese from the Philippines. She studied music and creative writing at Western Michigan University and earned an MSW at Simmons College School of Social Work in Boston.
Read more under 'Contributors'.
Lynnette Li

This time of year is tough for many people. For those who have lost a loved one. Or for those who are far from their loved ones due to physical or emotional distance.

Four years ago, it was tough for me too. I wrote a piece exposing my personal struggle during the winter holidays, called Why December Makes Me Sad, for Kveller.com. I wrote about the loneliness of being an interfaith family trying and failing to live up to both of our families’ unspoken wishes—my evangelical Christian side, his Jewish side. I think that back then, I believed that by sharing my feelings, I’d feel less lonely. But it didn’t work. That December made me so sad that I stopped sharing my writing for over a year.

When I reread that piece, I can feel the hunched-shape my timid shoulders must have taken while writing it. I can sense the aura of apology plastered all over the page. I observe an attempt to claim a space for myself and for this family I’m creating with my husband, but without the belief that I truly deserved it. 

Today, my daughter is five years old. I have an almost three-year-old son. I’ve been growing as a parent, caring for my mental health, evaluating the elements of my various relationships. And I’m encouraged by the changes when I compare my words of then to my thoughts of now.

“Looooooooook!” they said with a complete disbelief and amazement that my adult sensibilities have long lost.

A two-story-high tree went up a few weeks ago near the market a few blocks from our house. It is covered with white lights and gold ribbon and round, oversized, metallic ornaments of orange, blue, red, green, white, and purple. I walked by with my children one afternoon as the Chicago sun was preparing to set. Each of them had one of my hands in theirs, and they pulled with the full weight of their bodies, dragging me to a stop. “Looooooooook!” they said with a complete disbelief and amazement that my adult sensibilities have long lost. I had been trying to get us home before dark, but I paused and looked at the tree.

I really looked at it.

 

I vowed to talk with my Jewish husband about bringing a real tree into our home this year. Click To Tweet

I began to see it as they saw it: the size, the brightness, the beauty of it. They pulled more and asked whether we could walk up close. We touched the ornaments with our fingers, viewed our distorted reflections with our noses up against the shiny balls. I vowed to talk with my Jewish husband about bringing a real tree into our home this year. My children’s dropped jaws, round eyes, and gleeful exclamations started to wipe away the pain of the previous Decembers. I could feel new meaning in the light and color aglow before me.

christmas

To devout Christians, this time of year is a celebration of the birth of the messiah. To religious Jews, this time of year is a celebration of the right to practice Judaism in the face of religious persecution.

There are many narratives that tout “the true meaning” behind the winter holidays. To those who use these narratives, they are powerful stories that build conviction for holiday practices. To devout Christians, this time of year is a celebration of the birth of the messiah. To religious Jews, this time of year is a celebration of the right to practice Judaism in the face of religious persecution. To some, this time of year is about giving. To some, it is about family and drawing close to loved ones. But these narratives can also be painful and damaging to those who don’t subscribe to the same worldview, whose circumstances don’t allow for giving or gathering, or who are still searching for their own truth.

As I stood before the large tree with my children, the dark started to creep into the sky. It falls around 4:20 pm this time of year in Chicago. The chill of the day becomes more stark when the sun goes down. I imagine that I live over a hundred years ago in the same cold and dark without modern electricity, without my down jacket, without fresh produce, without a way to communicate with loved ones at my fingertips. This eerie image takes my breath away. Would I have survived? I imagine our ancestors, thousands of miles away - my husband’s in Eastern Europe and mine in China - facing war, facing persecution, facing a long journey to an unknown place. How did they survive?

I used to believe our family didn’t have a right to the traditions of the past. Today, I shamelessly claim the traditions that are meaningful to me.

I find a meaningful thread running through the stories of our families and our religious traditions. The Maccabees refused to allow the Jewish people to disappear at the hand of the Greeks. A young mother, Mary, found a humble space in which to birth her child, and complete strangers gathered together to honor, protect, and celebrate a new little life.

The Jewish people fled the places they called home, they refused to be extinguished even as six million of their people were killed. And many Chinese, like my grandfather, fled China during a time of civil war. My grandfather left for the Philippines, armed with a religion, new to him, and full of live-giving meaning - called Christianity. These are all stories of people who sought out and created light to survive in darkness. Sometimes it was literal darkness; other times it was the darkness of death and oppression, or maybe it was personal darkness of the mind. 

My sadness reflected the fear that our family was failing to honor the respective traditions passed down to us. Click To Tweet

Four years ago, my sadness reflected the fear that our family was failing to honor the respective traditions passed down to us. I felt like an intruder in spaces that used to feel like home, because I’d chosen to “leave the fold.” So I collected justifications for my choices and defenses for our practices. When I went back to revisit the piece I wrote, the suggested article following mine was titled “Actually, You Can’t Celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas.” I felt a familiar defensiveness shoot up from my gut into my face. But the difference between me then and now is that today I’m no longer sad. I used to believe our family didn’t have a right to the traditions of the past. Today, I shamelessly claim the traditions that are meaningful to me.

I used to believe our family didn’t have a right to the traditions of the past. Today, I shamelessly claim the traditions that are meaningful to me. Click To Tweet

During the December holidays, I celebrate the survival of my people and my husband’s people who came before us, and I practice bringing light into our home so that we too can endure the darkest time of year.

My husband agreed to bringing our first real fir tree into our home this year. As we set it up, my kids hovered just a few feet away, hopping with anticipation, breathing in the sweet pine smell as the branches slowly started to release toward the ground. We draped little soft white globes of light across the branches. The sparse ornaments are translucent, colored beads we strung onto pipe cleaners and then bent into stars, hearts, and circles. The light from the globes shines through the rainbow-colored beads.

During Hanukkah we played with a cheap wooden dreidel I bought the first winter after we got married.

Next to our tree, on the mantle, sits a plastic Hanukkah menorah. My daughter tells our friends that her daddy’s had this menorah since he left for college almost 20 years ago. During Hanukkah we played with a cheap wooden dreidel I bought the first winter after we got married. We lit the candles, the kids alternated days, as we said together, “Blessed is the light in the world, blessed is the light in humanity, blessed is the light of Hanukkah.” We fried latkes and Nutella-filled donuts and dumplings (the oil is just begging for it!) over the eight nights.

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We invited friends over for a “singing party,” as my kids call it. We sang songs about Santa, songs about dreidels and lighting candles, songs about winter, songs about baby Jesus, songs about peace on Earth. We accompanied ourselves with a keyboard and guitar. Our children danced and sang along at times. They put themselves in dress-up clothes and ran throughout the apartment at other times. For the first time in years, I sang traditional carols without sadness. It was the clearest sign that the holidays have new meaning for me.

We sang songs about Santa, songs about dreidels and lighting candles, songs about winter, songs about baby Jesus, songs about peace on Earth. Click To Tweet

I do not celebrate a “watered-down” or “mish-mashed” version of someone else’s holidays. Click To Tweet

This year, I do not celebrate a “watered-down” or “mish-mashed” version of someone else’s holidays. I take this opportunity to make my own meaning and celebrate the holidays fully. After all, I find that all these holiday origin stories are about different people fighting for the right to make their own meaning - to shout into the dark, “I am here.” And so I wish you whichever greeting is meaningful to you - Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Holidays, or Happy Winter Solstice - and what I hope more than anything in my wish is that you will find the light you need to survive your darkness too.

 

the author

Lynnette Li is a performing artist, music teacher, and part-time-stay-at-home mom. She grew up the eldest of three children in Metro Detroit, U.S., to immigrant parents who identify as Chinese from the Philippines. She studied music and creative writing at Western Michigan University and earned an MSW at Simmons College School of Social Work in Boston. Read more under 'Contributors'.

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