Inside the Groton home Faith Tyler shares with her husband, Chris, and their two sons, Sam, 6, and Dylan, 2, green and red stockings hang on the mantel, beside a bench where a gold menorah has a few multi-colored candles in it and a star-shaped candy dish is filled with red Santa hat Hershey’s Kisses and gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins — gelt.
There are Christmas lights strung on the front porch, but Faith Tyler, 36, is in the market for some blue ones for Hanukkah, to hang on the adjacent carriage house, and maybe something to add the colors of Kwanzaa to their home as well.
“Any excuse to be merry and make the night a little brighter is good enough for me,” she said.
Faith’s father is Jewish; her mother is Catholic. She grew up helping to light the candles on her family’s menorah while hanging ornaments on the Christmas tree every December, reciting Hanukkah blessings and singing Christmas carols.
When, six years ago, she married Chris Tyler, 33 — he was raised Catholic — there wasn’t much expectation as to how they’d celebrate the holiday season, she said. It’s become a fluid tradition for this household, a colorful blend Hanukkah blue, Christmas red and everything in between.
“It’s such a special time of year,” she said.
In a 2013 PEW Research Center survey, about a third of Jewish families in America said they had a Christmas tree in their home. Ninety-two percent of Americans said they celebrate Christmas, whether as a religious or a cultural holiday, and roughly one in five American adults say they were raised with a mixed religious background.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute, New York was designated the most religiously diverse state in 2016.
So what does that mean for community centers and childcare facilities, where families trust teachers and caregivers to expand their children’s horizons, while still preserving their family traditions?
“The easiest way to promote acceptance, love and empathy is to teach them about celebrating differences at a young age,” said Lynette Errante, youth director at the Jewish Community Center of Binghamton.
On Dec. 13, the JCC’s Hanukkah celebration invited the community to taste latkes, play dreidel and watch a comedy-filled music video created with clips of some of the children who attend the community center.
There are about 200 children enrolled at the JCC Early Childhood Center, with another 40-50 in its school-age programs, and more non-Jewish children enrolled than there are Jewish, Errante said, yet Jewish culture plays a pivotal role in the agency’s programming.
“Everything we do is driven by the Jewish – and universal – values of kindness, respect, compassion, and responsibility,” reads the agency’s website.
“We are a Jewish-based organization,” Errante said, “so we try to incorporate those values. I think it’s really nice to open the kids’ eyes, they get to see other traditions.”
Outside of Christmas and Hanukkah, this time of year is the season for other holidays and observances, including Mawlid al-Nabi, which celebrates the birthday of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad; Bodhi Day, commemorating the day the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, experienced enlightenment; Guru Nanak Gurpurab, celebrating the birth of the first Sikh Guru; and the winter solstice.
In their classrooms, staff at the JCC generate conversation among the children in their charge by asking, “How does your family celebrate the holidays?”
Recognizing that diversity is critical to Rev. Margaret Weis, who is a minister at First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, where December is marked by a handful of holiday services.
There’s a quiet service — Weis called it an opportunity for “a quiet reflective space during a chaotic season” — a winter solstice service, a Hanukkah service and three Christmas services.
“One of the things I love is it’s a place where simultaneous truths can exist and give hope and meaning,” Weis said.
A Unitarian Universalist congregation, Weis said there are members who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah and a combination of the two. Worship services may include poetry, or verses drawn from pagan traditions or the Bible.
“We have a variety of ways people can engage,” she said. “We draw from a lot of different sources.”
Regarding couples who got married from 2010-2014, a PEW Research Center survey indicated 39 percent of Americans had a spouse of a different religious group — that was the case for only 19 percent of Americans before 1960 — and one quarter of young adults considered millenials in the survey come from religiously mixed families.
“Being Jewish is part of my heritage, I want to pass that on to my kids,” Tyler said. “And I’ve always loved Christmas. It’s an American holiday more than anything to me.”
Holidays for family
Inside Corning Children’s Center classrooms, there are no trees. No lights, no stockings. It’s a deliberately ordinary environment during the month of December.
“I’m a believer that family traditions are deeply important and serve not only a function within the family but within the society and within the culture,” said Peigi Cook, executive director at Corning Children’s Center. “However, I’m equally passionate that we should never assumed that another person’s traditions are our own.”
Located on Arthur Street, the center is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1980 where a staff of 70 provide care and education to about 160 children from ages 6 weeks to 5 years old.
Twelve languages are spoken across the many homes of families whose children attend the Corning Children’s Center.
“Our client base is very diverse,” Cook said. “We have people from all over the world melding traditions or blending traditions.”
Keeping the building free of holiday decorations is a conscious effort to respect the personal choices of those families served by the organization.
“Even if everyone in this building celebrating Christmas, we should never assume that we know how families celebrate,” she said.
No matter what holiday a family celebrates, the season can be a stressful time, Cook said, so the center is a space where families can escape the mayhem.
“Our goal for the children and the center is for this to be a place where life is predictable and safe and familiar,” she said.
Ultimately, she said, holidays are about family traditions.
“For some it’s a deeply religious holiday and the commercial side of it is deeply offensive and Santa Claus is a distraction. For others, the magic of Santa Claus and that whole storytelling, creative side is what it’s about,” she said. “To assume homogeneity leaves somebody feeling misunderstood or sidelined.”
This month, Faith Tyler read a book to her son Sam’s first-grade class. In it, a character exclaims, “You can see all the way to Minsk from here.”
That’s near Russia, Tyler told her son’s classmates, where Sam’s family is from.
Her connection to the holidays is an homage to her heritage, passed down by generations of her family.
“My ancestors were smart and brave enough to get out of where they were,” she said. “It’s not much to get some chocolate coins, light the candles, do the tradition, to feel like I’m recognizing that history.”
In Stories to Share, reporter Katie Sullivan spends time with the Southern Tier’s most fascinating people. She’s looking for stories that will make you laugh, cry or be inspired. Know of someone who should be featured? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on Twitter @ByKatieSullivan.
From the pages
In recent years, child-rearing in interfaith families has been the basis for literature, support groups and online forums, particularly from the lens of simultaneously celebrating Christian and Jewish traditions.
Children’s books on the subject include “Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas,” by Margaret Moorman. Published in 1999, it’s geared toward children 3-5, and tells the story of a girl whose family participates in both holidays.
For older children around 5-8, there’s “Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama,” by Selina Alko, a story of a family who blend the traditions of Hanukkah and Christmas, leaving latkes for Santa in place of cookies and hanging candy canes on a menorah. There’s a recipe for cranberry kugel in there, too.
There’s also “Eight Candles and a Tree,” by Simone Bloom Nathan, a story following a girl named Sophie who explains to a friend, Tommy, how her family celebrates the holiday season, focusing on the secular aspect of Christmas and the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights in the Temple.
Another is “Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise,” by Karen Fisman, which features a Jewish girl named Rachel’s holiday experience with her Italian grandmother.
“December’s Gift,” by Ashley Smith-Santos, tells the story of a young girl who helps her Bubbe make latkes and her Grandma make Christmas cookies, while these family members teach her about their religious traditions.