On celebrating each other’s religious holidays

by cv harquail on November 9, 2009

Only 4.5 weeks till Hanukkah, 8 weeks until Christmas, 9 until New Years… Time to think about weaving your Au Pair into your family’s celebrations.

You should think ahead, and talk with your au pair, because holidays can be important times to feel in or out of a family, acknowledged or overlooked, celebrated or taken for granted.

Orange star micamica.jpegHere’s a question we received from an au pair’s point of view:

I’m a Christian Au Pair for a Muslin Family, with a question about celebrating holidays.

My birthday occurred in my first month with my family and so I didn’t expect a gift or celebration.
Recently, my host family celebrated their holiday Eid. I bought something for the kids, and I expected something from them on Eid, but they didn’t give me a gift on that holiday. Now Christmas is coming, a holiday that I celebrate as a Christian. In December, I’ll have been with my host family for 9 months.

Should I expect something for Christmas?

Dear AP –

At the very least, we should each other’s religious holidays.

Acknowledging a holiday means that we know the holiday is coming, talk about what it means to the person who celebrates it, and plan ahead so that the person who celebrates the holiday has time off to go to church, temple, the mosque, or elsewhere.

In contrast, celebrating the holiday means to get more involved. To me, that means to participate in the holiday, to decorate for it, cook the special foods, and participate in religious and non-religious rituals — like at Christmas, giving gifts. It might be too much to ask that we ‘celebrate’ other people’s religious holidays, since often the holidays don’t co-exist comfortably. (For example, celebrating Christmas is sometimes experienced by non-Christians as a kind of cultural imperialism.)

Gift-giving, oddly enough, seems to fall between the space of acknowledging and celebrating. Being given a gift recognizes the importance of the holiday to you, but also might feel like participating in it to them. Personally, I think that it would have been nice of them to include you in the celebration of their holiday — indeed, since you made an effort to celebrate with them, leaving you out was not very thoughtful. (But it happens, mostly because people don’t think ahead and/or pay attention). But I would not expect your host family to give you a gift– that might be too much ‘celebrating’ for them.

Instead, have a conversation with your host family about how you might want to celebrate Christmas.

Islamic Holiday Ornament_1257387402646.jpeg

  • Ask in advance for the time off that you want. I think it is appropriate to have a religious holiday as an off duty day, doing your 45 hrs of on-duty time on other days.
  • Be clear about if you want to go to church, and when, so that you have have transportation.
  • Talk with your host parents about whether or not they would like you to share some of your Christmas traditions with them… for example, if they are a religious family, they might like to have you talk about what Christmas means to you spiritually. Or, they might prefer a more secular cultural exchange.

See this as an opportunity to clarify what you need and talk with your host family about what they might like. Plan in advance so you can accommodate each other.

Finally, consider that you might need to make plans to join with another au pair or two to do some celebrating in your off duty time…. you don’t want to miss out on the holiday (that could even get you homesick).

Host parents, what do you think? Au pairs? Please share….

Islamic Christmas Ornament by Kyle Design (only $14.95)


MommaMia November 5, 2009 at 2:55 pm

I’m so sorry that your host family did not even give you a birthday card.
I’m not familiar with Muslim practices or holidays, so I don’t know what to tell you to expect at Christmas. Have you talked to them about how they celebrate (or not)? You could mention that you are planning to get something for the host children, perhaps, to see what they suggest.
Or, possibly your LCC or other au pairs in your area could talk together about different customs and plans for the holidays (ours does) and you could celebrate with another family and attend religious services if that is your preference. Surely your host parents will understand that you wish to have as many different cultural and learning experiences during your stay in the U.S.

PA au pair mom November 7, 2009 at 3:19 pm

This is one of the reasons we use religon as a screening tool during the matching process. For us, it just eliminates a lot of potential confusion and hurt feelings.

We are not at all religious. For us, Christmas is a commercial holiday with Santa and presents. We look for an au pair who wants a similar holiday experience.

I am very sorry that the AP in the original post didn’t get acknowledged on her birthday or at Eid. If the family was celebrating and she is part of the family, then she should be included in all celebrations, including gift giving.

Getting skipped at holidays has to be a horrible feeling, especially when you are away from your own family and friends.

TX Mom November 9, 2009 at 2:27 pm

For us holidays have varied with the relationship we have with our AP. (Holidays and cultural exchange in general have varied greatly.) In most cases, we have our holidays and allow the AP to opt in or out as they please. I normally give them holidays as paid time off and they usually want to take advantage of an extra “free day of vacation.”

Darthastewart November 9, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Our au-pairs have all decided to join us for the holidays. I’m always at a loss for stocking stuffers though- ideas?

Natt November 10, 2009 at 6:48 pm

lip gloss!

TX Mom November 12, 2009 at 5:40 pm

I always think “consumable during their year in the US” for stocking stuffers because the AP’s have SO MUCH STUFF to take/ship home. (All the ideas suggested – gift cards, personal care stuff, etc.)

StephinBoston November 9, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Dartha: Some stocking stuffers that have worked for us in the past:
Gift Cards, makeup, costume jewelry, socks, hairbands/clips, travel size toiletries, cute pens/notepads, perfume samples…

Annabelly November 9, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Hi! Thanks for pick my comment! I really think they don’t think ever in gave me a gift for Eid, but they share with me when they put mandí (henna tattoo) but even that I felt like fake, I feel they did just because I was there. I dont know maybe is me! They celebrate Christmas and they even make their kids believe in Santa, but their mom says is a commercial Hollyday! I am making me the idea I am not going to recieve any present for they, but also, I dont think I am not going to have money to buy a present for the kids this time, because I will need to buy 4!! And I don’t want they feel I didn’t just because they are not going to give me one, the kids are already telling me, what they want and I don’t want disappointed them! I wish can give this page to my HM but I think she is going to know is me!

PA au pair mom November 9, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Last year, our au pair approached me and said she didn’t have a lot of money to buy presents for the kids. I suggested she make each of the boys a memory book with pictures of them together, different journal entries, etc.

She made them each a memory book…about $5 each and then bought them each a horn for their bike. the memory book were at the top of their lists of favorite presents. they show them to everyone.

cv November 10, 2009 at 10:12 am

PA apm –
The most precious gifts we’ve ever gotten from au pairs have been those that combine hand-made with memories… photo albums, kids collages, photos of events between the ap & kids… it really is true that it’s the *thought*, not the money.

Darthastewart November 10, 2009 at 11:01 am

I’m wondering if this is just a case of not thinking things through more than anything else.

PA aupair mom November 10, 2009 at 11:11 am

I have to wonder too if it was an overlooking versus an intentional omission.

Jewish Host Mom November 9, 2009 at 11:51 pm

While we celebrate Hanukah, our aupair celebrates Christmas. We gave her Christmas eve and Christmas day off so she can celebrate with friends and gave her a generous monetary gift (bonus) at year end to spend as she wished.

PA au pair mom November 10, 2009 at 1:10 am

Just wondering if you discussed it before her arrival or after.

Mom23 November 10, 2009 at 10:01 am

We are Jewish and we have always given our au pairs the option of celebrating with us. We buy her 8 presents some big like gift certificates to Starbucks or Borders and some small like a new scarf or some silly slippers. Then we give her a bonus at Christmas — usually around one week’s stipend. We have always given our au pairs Christmas off.

PA aupair mom November 10, 2009 at 10:11 am

Mom23….sounds like you have a great and very thoughtful plan in place for holidays.

Your au pair is very lucky.

Another Jewish Host Mom November 11, 2009 at 10:42 am

We are also Jewish and had our first au pair last year. She celebrates Christmas. We tried to make compromises that felt right all around, I hope. She wanted to do chocolate Advent calendars with our kids, which they were thrilled with of course, and we thought was a nice gesture. She also made Christmas cookies with them. We did not however feel comfortable with any Christmas decorations around our house. We also brought her over to family friends one afternoon to have cider and hot chocolate under their tree and soak in some Christmas cheer. She participated in lighting the Hannukah candles with us, and gave our kids and us small gifts. We did not give her a gift then, instead we gave her gifts for Christmas.

We go away over the Winter Break and she used it as vacation, with a close friend from home coming to celebrate with her. So she had that time to purchase a small fake tree, etc. to make the house feel like Christmas to her.

She did know we were Jewish before we matched, although I don’t know if she realized what that would mean over the Holidays.

NewAPMom November 10, 2009 at 7:18 pm

To me this sounds more like a difference in philosophy of gift-giving, and less about the host family not including you.

The fact that they included in you in the Mandi is actually pretty great. That sounds like something meaningful to them. That would be like including an au pair in a Thanksgiving dinner. Since it’s an American holiday, culturally it means nothing to the au pair, and everything to the host family, and it’s nice to be included in such an important family event. But there are no gifts exchanged at Thanksgiving.

I’m agnostic but celebrate Christmas holidays. I’m with your host mom- I think Christmas is a commercial holiday, and I really hate that aspect of it. I think people get all wrapped up in who’s giving what to whom and what they got from other people, and miss the part about being together with family and having nice meals and seeing and hearing from people they haven’t seen in a while.

I think it’s unfortunate that they “skipped” you in gifts for EID, but perhaps they assumed that you weren’t celebrating with them, so maybe just a misunderstanding. I don’t think you should ever “expect” gifts. Gifts should be given freely and with no expectation. It would be nice if they’d acknowledge the holiday; either with time off, or with a special dinner, or something. Perhaps you could offer to help cook a special dinner?

With regards to the holiday bonus – wow, does everyone do that? Frankly a week’s salary is more than I spend on presents for my husband and kids combined. But we’re just not very big gift-givers in my family so I don’t know. Anyway I hope our au pair doesn’t have that expectation…

Anonymous November 12, 2009 at 5:13 pm

We are a Muslim family. We do not exchange gifts when we celebrate Ied and we don’t expect to receive gifts either. So, I don’t think the host family “skipped” the gift your their AP.

We don’t celebrate Chrismast but we have always given our AP a nice gift and day off on Christmast day. Usually, they will to they cleberate Christmast with their friends. So far, we never had any problems in the past.

We always told them that we are a muslim family before we match.

Janet November 10, 2009 at 8:06 pm

We usually give a small gift like gloves, scarf and sweater from someplace like Old Navy plus a stuffed stocking w/ small things like Christmas socks from Target, lip gloss, post it notes, candies/chocolate, Herbal Essence shampoo, etc. We also give around $150 in cash. I figure the total gift is around $200. I base the amount on what we give our college-age kids who are much more interested (or maybe in need of) money.

We celebrate Little Christmas (Epiphany) in our household but this is more of a spiritual celebration for us.

We include the AP in our family Christmas picture.

We also send a Christmas card to the AP’s family w/ some pictures of the AP and our family.

cv November 10, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Let’s save the conversation about what to get our au pairs… I’ll post something separately!

Another CA Mom November 11, 2009 at 8:25 pm

What a great idea to send a card to the AP’s family – I think we’ll be using that, this year!

Frenchie November 12, 2009 at 10:53 pm

Just saw your posting and I agree that it is such an important topic for host families and au pairs. There are all kinds of emotions associated with the holidays, and depending on the au pair’s background, melancholie, homesickness, “the blues” are very likely to trouble her.
It is so important for the family to make the au pair feel like she is part of the festivities, the tradition and of the extended family… no matter what is going on.
When I was an au pair, my host mom lost her dad to cancer right before Thanksgiving… and this was the first christmas without him. Very tough times but they chose to work with me and find new support in me, which in turns made me feel needed and accepted.

The extended family was very important to me too, because at that time they were able to support me… they helped me to better help my host parents, because they knew exactly what their needs were, even if they were too troubled or felt guilty to ask for me to fill these needs.

Sara Duke November 13, 2009 at 8:47 am

We are a Jewish family that unapologetically celebrates Christmas. We give the au pair a small gift on the first night of Hanukah only (because we adults only exchange gifts on the first night). However, we do stuff a stocking for Christmas. Our au pairs have tended to come from warmer places than Washington DC, so some of the items we put into the stocking are: warm socks with wool in them, a $10 phone card, an i-Tunes card, favorite foods, gloves, a desk diary, hand lotion, Purel, etc. Target is a great place for picking these items up inexpensively. We almost always end up giving long underwear at Christmas, slippers, and warm sweaters at Christmas, too. We like for them to have something tangible to open so they don’t spend Christmas morning just watching us open presents. I encourage you to find out what’s important to your au pair, if she celebrates Christmas and you don’t, and accommodate it. Ask questions, don’t wait for the au pair to tell you. Last year our Swedish au pair made a gingerbread house with our son. They had a blast together and we made a video on her camera. Encourage the au pair to make a special food to share with you. We always give a monetary bonus, too, usually around $100 or $150 depending on the au pair. Our extended family usually sends something to the au pairs as well. Somehow our au pairs’ birthdays always seem to fall at the end of her year with us, so we give her an empty box and tell her to stuff it with items she wants sent home. It usually costs me $150 to insure and airmail it, but I consider it money well spent (I also have a special needs child who requires 100% care and my au pairs work hard). Most au pairs don’t realize the value of the gift (other than relieving the strain on their luggage), until they get home. Get your kids involved in the gift-giving. They spend a lot of time with your au pair and they might just surprise you with what they know. (My son was 2 1/2 when he let us know that Victoria’s Secret was one of our au pair’s favorite stores.)

NoVA Host Mom November 13, 2009 at 2:01 pm

With regards to the original post, I am still learning about the religious differences between our AP and our family. Despite our frequent questions about what she does and does not celebrate, I seem to be finding out things the hard way – last minute after much planning the other direction.

For Christmas this year, now that I know (thank you Wiki!) that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas (and birthdays, so it was not just a “we don’t celebrate in my family” thing as I was told), I will be talking with our AP to see how she will feel comfortable during the holidays. I tend to go all out on decorations, etc., and even got her a stocking with her name on it (she is extending so will be here for 2 Christmases with us). I will obviously still be getting her gifts, and if she prefers for us to give them to her on other days or in different wrappings to avoind the “celebration of a pagan-based holiday” thing, I have no problem with that. I won’t even put anything physically into her stocking if she prefers.

The whole thing is about learning and figuring out that there are other cultures out there, both nationality-based and faith-based. And I am glad for the chance to learn.

Maybe with the original AP’s family, they celebrate Eid differently than another Muslim family. Even among Christians, there are many, many ways to celebrate Christmas (i.e. JW don’t, but are a Christian faith just as Catholics are, who do). Just a thought. Maybe it is better if you approach your HM and HD and ask them directly. Tell them how you are feeling. They can tell you their thoughts behind what happened. Give them a chance, just as you would want them to provide you.

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