As a girl growing up in a Maryland suburb, it was Christmas I most anticipated this time of year. But in the mailbox, mixed amongst greeting cards decorated with images of snow-covered pine trees, nativity scenes, candy canes and jolly old Saint Nick, my sisters and I often discovered Hanukkah-themed cards from my paternal grandparents and other relatives from my father's side of the family who lived in New York. I don't remember finding this at all strange; my mother's side of the family is Protestant, and my father's side is Jewish. Looking back, I think maybe it's this blending of religion and ethnicity that is at least partially responsible for my inclination to seek out and embrace culture.
It's that tendency, in fact, which led me as an adult to meet and marry my husband, Carlos. Raised Catholic in El Salvador, Carlos embraced my background, as I did his. Together we have two sons with a diverse heritage that we celebrate throughout the year, and at this time of year, not only do we tell the story of the nativity and attend Catholic mass, but we also practice Jewish traditions in honor of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
Pride of heritage is something I have wanted for my boys since before they could understand what that means because when you know who you are in the world, and you're proud of where you come from, it sets the foundation for good self-esteem, a natural self-confidence and an invaluable sense of well-being. Besides its character-building ability, knowing one's roots is magical in the sense that it leads to an understanding of who you are in the present while tying you simultaneously to the past and the future through traditions—traditions which have been practiced by ancestors and will be carried on for generations stretching beyond your own lifetime.
Lighting the menorah after sundown, adding a candle each night for eight nights, reading the story of the Maccabees, playing dreidel for gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins called gelt, enjoying homemade potato latkes with applesauce and sour cream, and savoring the sweet taste of sufganiyot, jelly-filled doughnuts covered in powdered sugar, are all ways we remember the miracle our ancestors experienced when the oil they had, which was only enough to last for one night, instead lasted for eight. Hopefully these are traditions that will be passed down to grandchildren and great-grandchildren, no matter how diverse our family blood line becomes and no matter which religion they one day practice.
The Jewish proverb, "as you teach, you learn," is one that over the years I've found to be true, especially as a mother. In teaching my children to hold on tightly to their roots, I've learned to appreciate my own all the more.