Wasn’t that the name of a movie a few years ago about a family reuniting for the holidays with mayhem as the result? No doubt the gathering of an extended family including numerous generations, siblings, their offspring and others, has the potential for conflict as well as joy. But why are some holidays in particular often fraught with emotion?
We all have memories of what these holidays were like when we were the children. Now we are the parents, yet somehow the holidays may at times make us feel as though we are back in our former roles. As children we were the ones being given to and taken care of; now we are expected to be grown-ups while perhaps still wanting the remembered pleasures of childhood.
For some of us, our own parents may now need that care, yet they may still expect to tell us what to do and how to do it. Old rivalries with siblings may unexpectedly reassert themselves, perhaps at times played out as competition about our children; the next generation knowingly or unknowingly repeating unresolved tensions between their parents.
On the other hand, a sense of loss may also come from the wish, or hope that we will be recreating everything as it was in the best sense, and the discovery that our fantasy is not – and cannot – be realized.
This year Christmas and Chanukah overlap, which adds another dimension to the generally emotionally over laden holiday season. I recently came across a children’s book titled, “Are You Chanukah or Christmas?” In it, a little girl who is the center of the story asks everyone she meets, “Are you Chanukah or Christmas?” She says she is on a mission and “must know” if they have a Christmas tree or a Menorah. She asks which of the traditions of the two holidays they follow, getting answers from a variety of people. Finally, someone asks her how she celebrates. With great pleasure she says she celebrates with a Christmas tree and a Menorah, telling how she combines the traditions of both holidays such as having latkes (pancakes) along with eggnog.
These days there are increasing numbers of interfaith families, and while this story may reflect a creative solution for some, it may not for others. Some families are comfortable combining elements of both holidays in their celebrations, but others may find it something of a struggle. A friend, who in marrying someone of the Jewish faith agreed to raise their children in that religion, confided that although she enjoyed many aspects of the celebrations, she has a great feeling of loss at not being able to have her children with her in church on Christmas. The reverse situation surely exists for others.
The challenge of trying to incorporate a variety of traditions and beliefs, childhood experiences and adult realities into new practices, brought to mind another book written by a friend called “Cinderella Tales”. This book is a collection of Cinderella stories as they are told in various countries from China to India, Turkey, Germany, South Africa, and Chile among many others.
What is fascinating about these stories is the way in which while keeping the familiar Cinderella frame, they each reflect the culture and values of the individual countries from which they come. In one story the fairy godmother is a magic cow, in another a magic fish. In one story Cinderella is actually a young man, in another Cinderella and the evil sisters are onions. They all have a mother who dies, however, and a wicked stepmother who is the source of trouble. (Make of that what you will.)
Obviously, there is something in the Cinderella story that has universal appeal. What is meaningful in its universality has been kept, while the rest of the story has been modified to incorporate the beliefs and values important to each culture. Undoubtedly, the story has also been modified as it has been passed down through the generations.
Perhaps what we can take from this is that each new generation of parents can create its own stories, combining older values with newer realities in a way that works for each individual family. Holidays tend to pull us back to old stories, which can be pleasurable to revisit if we don’t get lost in the retelling.
Whether the holidays bring a combining of faiths, of generations, of siblings, or of our childhood memories with our adult selves, being aware in advance of our competing emotions may help us find the best in the holiday spirit.
Merry Christmas! Happy Chanukah! Or Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah!