For most of us, the holidays are a busy time of year, taken up with decorating, baking, buying and wrapping gifts, cooking, and generally making spirits bright. But imagine if your family celebrated two different holiday traditions.
Mike and Pam Dover do just that. Mike was raised in the Jewish faith and Pam in the Catholic. When they married, there was no question they would incorporate both religious traditions into their holiday celebrations as a couple. After they welcomed two children into the family, things got more hectic for the full-time working parents, but through the years they’ve managed to build traditions inclusive of both faiths.
As I arrive at their home, Aaron, 16, is on his way out to meet friends and Brianna is quickly eating at the kitchen counter before catching a ride with a teammate’s parent to hockey practice. Both children play hockey at the competitive level, so the family schedule is a often beyond full. Mike and Pam, who have each just arrived home from work, plan to squeeze in dinner before they travel to the rink to pick up Brianna after practice. It’s a typical day in the life of an active family.
Ironically, it’s the holiday season that brings the Dovers much needed moments of peace and serenity, and allows extended family to come together. Although Mike and Pam have all their siblings and both sets of parents living in the Ottawa area, they find it difficult to get together with family during the year. “That’s why the family time during the holidays is really important,” says Pam. “We don’t see them very much through the year.” Mike agrees. “Christmas is a guarantee.”
When it comes to talking about the trouble of celebrating two sets of traditions, Pam and Mike see only the positives. For example, many couples can relate to tackling the unpleasant task of informing one side of the family that it’s the other family’s turn to host a holiday. It can be a difficult choice to make and often someone’s family enters the season disappointed.
Pam points out that one of the really good things about celebrating two separate holidays is they never have to pick one house over the other. Hanukkah is typically celebrated at any time from late November to late December and its start date is determined according the Hebrew calendar, which is lunar based. That’s why Christmas and Hanukkah rarely, if ever, overlap. The Dovers can spend Hanukkah with Mike’s family and Christmas with Pam’s family, without having to alternate.
Even when it comes to managing the decorations, the Dovers have it all worked out. “I try to keep it separate,” says Pam. “Hanukkah’s not the same day every year and usually I won’t put the Christmas decorations up until Hanukkah has been celebrated, in order to preserve the integrity of both holidays.”
If Hanukkah comes late in the year, the Dovers use both sets of decorations at the same time, but in separate areas of the home. The living room accommodates a Christmas tree and the kitchen displays the Hanukkah menorah, where Aaron and Brianna help to light the candles and say the Jewish prayers with Mike. The dining room table is strewn with Hanukkah gelt (gold-wrapped chocolate coins) and dreidels (four-sided spinning tops). The dining room is also where the family enjoys traditional Jewish meals and where Mike’s parents and the families of his brother and sister join them. Each year they alternate between the Dovers’ home and Mike’s sister’s home.
The only family rule, Mike says, “is that whoever hosts dinner doesn’t make latkes.” Pam nods and laughs. “They’re very time-consuming to make.” The shredded potato pancakes are fried in oil to symbolize the oil in the Hanukkah story that kept the Second Temple of Israel lit for eight days and nights. This event is celebrated as a miracle, hence Hanukkah is also called the “Festival of Lights.”
Lighting the menorah, a candle stand with nine branches, is the most important of the Hanukkah traditions. Typically, eight of the candles are the same height, with a taller one in the middle. Called the shamash, it is used to light the others. Each evening during the eight days of Hanukkah, one more candle is lit and a special blessing is said, until all eight are burning.
As a result of the Dovers’ dual celebrations, there has been a keen interest in Hanukkah from many of Aaron and Brianna’s non- Jewish friends. Those friends are welcomed into their home and to the table during Hanukkah so they can try out different foods and observe traditions they might not know much about.
When asked if she had a steep learning curve regarding the Jewish faith, Pam says, “I didn’t know anything about the Jewish religion. I definitely had a lot of learning as far as the different holidays. That was not the case for Mike. Growing up, all his friends’ houses were abundant with Christmas decorations and he would often go to their homes to help their families hang wreaths or Christmas lights. His aunt even used to host a dinner on Christmas Day, complete with turkey and fixings. She did this, Mike says, “because we wanted to fit in, like everyone else,”
He points out it will be interesting to see what happens when Aaron and Brianna enter into long-term relationships in the years to come. The Dovers deliberately haven’t had the kids baptized in either religion. “We wanted to give them the choice,” Pam says. If either marries into a particular faith and wants to fully convert, Pam and Mike have given their children the knowledge and freedom to choose. “The way I see it,” says Pam. “Neither of our religions is more important than the other.”
Another tradition for this family is that Hanukkah gifts—typically a single large present and one or two smaller ones—are from Mike and Pam. Christmas gifts, however, all arrive from Santa, with his distinctive wrapping paper.
When it comes to Christmas, family traditions have evolved over time. On Christmas morning when the children were little, the Dovers would open presents at home, and then head to Pam’s parents’ house for breakfast. They’d spend the day there, with Pam’s older sister and her family, and Pam’s younger brother. However, hosting the entire family for the whole day got to be too much work for her parents. “It felt like a wedding day,” says Pam. “All that work and [then] it’s over.” Now the Dovers enjoy a more leisurely Christmas morning. They celebrate the first half of the day at home and Mike makes a big breakfast. It’s not until the early afternoon that they pile into the car and drive to the grandparents’ house. Thankfully, these days Pam doesn’t feel as much stress during the holiday season. When the kids were little, she prepared for the holiday celebrations early, hiding the gifts in bins in the basement. She and Mike wanted to make sure they preserved the magic of Santa for as long as possible. “I wanted everything to be perfect for [Aaron and Brianna],” says Pam.
Despite their efforts to keep the magic, however, one Christmas stands out in Pam’s memory. After all the commotion leading up to Christmas morning, somehow Santa forgot to bring 9-year-old Aaron’s gift bin up from the basement. While Brianna gathered her presents from under the tree, it became clear, slowly, that there was nothing under the tree for Aaron. Luckily, Mike soon “discovered” Santa had left Aaron’s gifts in the basement instead. “Aaron’s the joker,” says Pam. “So it was kind of easy to turn the tables on him [and say] that Santa thought he’d be funny this year and hide his gifts downstairs.”
Each year, new memories are made. Sharing the responsibility of preparing the Hanukkah meal with Mike’s family and welcoming the hospitality of Pam’s parents on Christmas Day allows the Dovers to spend the season joyfully and peacefully.
That is until Boxing Day, when—for the past several years, and likely this year as well—they pack up the hockey sticks and skates and travel to another city for a hockey tournament, their lives once again at full speed.