Holiday celebrations blend religions, cultures

Holiday celebrations blend religions, cultures

December 16th, 2011 by Holly Leber in Life Entertainment

The Agrafiotis family - Stavroula, 5, Dimitris, Konstantina and Maria, 9, from left - incorporates Greek traditions, such as smashing a pomegranate, with traditional Christmas trappings, such as having a Christmas tree, during the holiday season.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

Each year, Laura Israel visits St. Nicholas School, where her 6-year-old son Zach is a student, to teach the children about Hanukkah.

Israel, a Christian, is married to Scott Israel, a practicing Jew who has dual membership at B'Nai Zion and Mizpah congregations. Each December, the Israel family -- Scott, Laura, Zach and 4-year-old Maddie, honor both parents' backgrounds by celebrating two holidays: Hanukkah and Christmas.

A number of Chattanooga families will either celebrate more than one holiday this season or will incorporate traditions from several cultures or religions into their festivities.

In the home of Dimitris and Konstantina Agrafiotis, Greek heritage meets American upbringing. He was raised in Athens, Greece; she in a Greek community in Chicago. Their children, Maria, 9, and Stavroula, 5, were born here.

The Agrafiotis family honors its Greek heritage by attending services at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church and abstaining from meat, eggs, dairy and oil for 40 days before Christmas. They cook an elaborate meal, featuring roast lamb, and bake a cake into which a coin, called a flouri, is hidden.

The cake is cut with pieces going to God, Jesus, Mary and then to the family members in descending age order. "When you find the coin in your slice, it means you will have good luck and good fortune," Dimitris said.

However, the family also acknowledges that they now make their home in America, so American Christmas customs are honored as well.

That means putting up a tree at the beginning of December instead of a week before Christmas, opening gifts on Dec. 25 instead of on Jan. 1, and incorporating Santa Claus into the celebration.

Incorporating his Greek heritage and his daughters' American upbringing has been fairly smooth, said. The community of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church helps their multicultural efforts, and his children's American friends are "intrigued" by Greek traditions.

"We have to keep up with our customs and our heritage," he said. "There's a fine line of balancing things. We can't forget where we came from, but we have to celebrate Christmas here in the manner that it should be."

Benjamin Fleet has his own ideas of how Christmas should be celebrated. A practicing Christian, Fleet said he feels the holiday has gotten too caught up in materialism and commercial gain.

He does not, he emphasizes, hate Christmas.

"I'm against the greed and consumerism of Christmas," he said. "The decorations are what really get to me. There are two different holidays now. The whole idea of Christmas as a Christian for me is celebrating Jesus' birth."

He said he would like to celebrate with food, fellowship and prayer, "without the whole glitz and glamour and ridiculous expensive stuff."

For the past five years, Fleet, 22, has celebrated Festivus as a way of protesting a holiday season he feels has become too caught up in material objects.

Introduced into popular culture on an episode of the TV series "Seinfeld," Festivus is celebrated each Dec. 23 to express frustration with the pressures of the holiday season. In lieu of decorations, the only Festivus adornment is an aluminum pole.

Fleet has a party each year, he said, to give his friends a break from the pomp and circumstance of the holiday season.

"At that time of year, everyone is going to Christmas sweater parties. It's a chance for people to get away from that."

Traditions like the airing of grievances are adhered to in a jocular manner only, he said. "Feats of strength" is another tradition that is given a humorous twist: Fleet's former roommate was a wrestler. Since tradition holds that Festivus ends when a guest defeats the head of the household in a wrestling match, "technically, Festivus has never ended for us, because nobody can beat him," Fleet says.

His family celebrates the spirituality of Christmas, though not to the level he would like, he said. They all go to church, but separately. Festivus, he said, offers a sense of balance to a holiday season he finds increasingly frustrating. He is open, however, to his perspective evolving.

"I can't say I'm going to hold on to all of this when I have a family of my own," he said.

Family is at the center of the Israels' celebrations, Laura Israel said.

The Hanukkah celebration is traditional, she said, with brisket and potato latkes, and lighting the menorah.

"History doesn't put Hanukkah as one of the most holy of holy days on the Jewish calendar," Israel said. "The more reverent time is Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Passover. Hanukkah is a time for us to educate our children more about their father and his traditions."

They decorate their home with Nativity scenes, Santa Claus, a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah tree, which they've decorated entirely with Hanukkah ornaments.

For Christmas, they go to her family's in Huntsville, Ala., for church services.

"We love going home and going to candlelight services in the church I grew up in," she said. "Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus and being with our family."

Laura Israel said her husband is moved by the Christmas service, even if he doesn't share the beliefs of the church. "Obviously, he does not believe Jesus is the Messiah. He believes Jesus is a prophet and there are a lot of good life lessons that can be learned from him. But he sees the specialness of a Christmas Eve service. We're very accepting of each other's beliefs and religions."

Another important aspect of celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah in the Israel home is giving to charity.

Through their church, they participate in Operation Christmas Child, in which shoeboxes full of presents are sent to children over the world. Scott is on the board of The Salvation Army, and the family supports the Angel Tree charity.

"We like to try to educate [Zach and Maddie] about the fact that there are children who don't have a lot of the basic necessities that all of us take for granted," Israel said.

The sense of awareness the Israels are trying to instill in their children is similar in nature to ujima, meaning collective work and responsibility, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

An African-American cultural celebration, Kwanzaa takes place from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. Its name is derived from the Swahili word for "first fruits." A candle is lit for each of the seven nights, with a different principle being represented each night. The principles are: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

"Any person who strives to live according to the principles of Kwanzaa is going to be a positive and contributing member of his community," said Cheryl Norris Sanders, a consultant and community activist.

Sanders celebrates Kwanzaa to honor her cultural roots and Christmas to honor her religious ones.

Both holidays, she said, "are very, very spiritual."

Christmas is a traditional celebration in her home, she said, with a tree, lights and all the trimmings. Presents are exchanged and an elaborate meal shared among family members.

Church might be a part of the day, but not always. They discuss the birth of Christ. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Sanders has been spending time with her 14-year-old grandson, whom she is raising, reading about the birth and life of Christ.

"I am a follower of Jesus Christ," she said, "so we very much celebrate his birth on Christmas Day. The thing of Jesus being the reason for the season is very much part of our celebration."

She also raised her children celebrating Kwanzaa and values it being a part of her grandson's life. "This will be his first really cognizant celebration of Kwanzaa," she said. "African-American culture and history is very important to me. It's important in terms of how we capture the hearts and minds of our youth. A lot of them don't really have a lot to hold on to."

For Kwanzaa, Sanders will celebrate with family and friends by dressing in traditional African garb, sharing a celebratory meal, exchanging gifts and discussing how to incorporate the seven principles of Kwanzaa into their lives.

"We talk about our connectedness, and the things we want to do moving forward building strong community," she said.