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Two faiths, one tree: the holiday negotiation

Farhana Alarakhiya and Rob Parker are teaching their daughter Sarra the common elements of their faiths.

For Farhana Alarakhiya and Rob Parker, the biggest issue was what to put on the top of their Christmas tree.

Mr. Parker was accustomed to a star - it had been part of his childhood since his family attended the United Church in his home town of Dundas, Ont. But that symbol made Ms. Alarakhiya uncomfortable as an Ismaili Muslim who immigrated from Kenya with her family when she was 9 and takes her faith seriously. Islam sees Jesus Christ as a prophet, she says, and she felt the star was connected too closely to the image of Jesus as the Son of God.

In the end, they settled on a handmade ornament she found at a craft show that Ms. Alarakhiya calls an "orb" and Mr. Parker jokingly calls an "amoeba."

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"I thought it was more in line with both of our beliefs, to symbolize unity and friendship and family," says Ms. Alarakhiya, who, along with her husband, works in Ottawa's high-tech industry.

"I realized it didn't matter as much as I thought," Mr. Parker says.

As interfaith marriages become more common in Canada, couples are faced with finding a balance between their faiths and cultures, particularly on major religious holidays such as Christmas. According to Statistics Canada, roughly one in five Canadian marriages are between couples of different religions - though that figure dates back to 2001, and the number would likely be higher today. The most common mixed marriage is between Protestant and Roman Catholic Canadians, but unions between a wider range, particularly Jewish and Christian (hence Chrismukkah, a pop culture term for blending Hanukkah with Christmas) are also more frequent.

Although interfaith marriages are more likely to include one spouse who isn't particularly religious - such as Mr. Parker - and by nature involve people with a more liberal view of religion, raising a family from different backgrounds isn't without its complications during the holidays. Sometimes, spouses are being introduced to Christmas traditions for the first time. Both spouses often face pressure from parents to preserve their own faith, especially when kids come along.

Parents are part of the stress for Fahdi, a 30-something Muslim professional in Ottawa whose mother and father are unhappy he is dating someone who was raised Roman Catholic. But he says religion would be a hot-spot in his relationship anyway - if he has kids some day, he wants them to be raised in his faith, without even the secular elements of Christmas, which he sees as largely fostering consumerism. "I don't want there to be ambiguity."

But other couples say it's not hard to strike a balance. Vonne Bannavong, a Buddhist who immigrated from Laos when she was young, and Robert Lacroix, a Roman Catholic French Canadian, both have a picture of The Last Supper hanging in the kitchen and a meditation room in their Winnipeg home. "We have a respect for each other's faith and symbols," says Mr. Lacroix, though he admits the statues of Buddha took some adjustment. "But I got over that. I realized that's a silly thing."

This year, Mr. Lacroix will go to mass on Christmas eve on his own. "But that's mainly," he laughs, "because she doesn't want to go at midnight."

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The Winnipeg couple concedes that their situation is made easier because their children, from previous relationships, are already grown, raised in their respective faiths.

For Sabina Holder, whose Muslim family immigrated from India and whose husband's Roman Catholic family came to Canada from Guyana, Christmas has been a crash course now that her four-year-old son is asking for all the holiday trappings, from popcorn strings on the tree to snacks left for Santa. She's been using her Christian friends as Christmas advisers - down to arranging the e-mail from the North Pole.

"Anything my son wants, we do," she says.

But on the faith side, Ms. Holder adds, "we've kept it pretty simple." A student at a Catholic public school, her son understands his parents come from different backgrounds. "We're still figuring it out," says Ms. Holder. "As long as he knows there are other religions, and Mommy is not Catholic, it doesn't bother me."

There can be fringe benefits to having two distinct faiths in marriage. Elaine Hirji, an accountant in Vancouver, never has to miss opening stockings and presents with her parents on Christmas morning. "There's no competition." Every second Christmas, she and her husband and their two daughters go for turkey dinner with her Ismaili Muslim in-laws - a ritual that includes a small decorated tree to embrace diversity in the family and turkey served with green chili. "I tried to do Christmas crackers one years," she remembers. "That was a disaster, trying to teach 20 people to do that at once."

At Ms. Alarakhiya and Mr. Parker's home, the Christmas tree, chopped down on a family outing, will be decorated this weekend. (Mr. Parker's Santa Claus collection is already on display.) On Sunday, a week after hosting a Muslim friend for an Eid celebration, they are having a holiday dinner for Christian friends. They are careful to teach their 8-year-old daughter, Sarra, who is being raised Muslim, the common themes of their individual backgrounds - the value both religions place on the teachings of Jesus, the importance of family, and care for people in need.

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"The example I give to my daughter is: All the religions that are out there, think of them as a string of Christmas lights," Ms. Alarakhiya says. "The colours are all different. But the electricity that runs through them is the same."

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Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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