"There are jingle bells, music and smiling faces. It's a time of year when there's an outpouring of love and compassion," says Claire Waggoner, a member of Kunzang Palyul Choling, a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Poolesville. "We celebrate Christmas like everyone else, as a time of joy. For us it's not a spiritual occasion but a cultural opportunity."

Throughout the D.C. region, families from a variety of cultures and religions embrace the American holiday season―Thanksgiving through the New Year―to varying degrees. Whether they choose to make the holiday their own or participate by invitation, these families agree that the season's underlying themes, such as importance of family and spirit of giving, are universal.

"Every society has people who are less fortunate, and if we have something we can share with them, why shouldn't we?" says Sant Gupta, a Hindu who lives in Lorton. "There's a spirit of helping, of giving, that is associated with the holidays―something we taught our children and now my daughter is teaching my grandchildren."

The Benefits of Participating

Participating in celebrations outside of one's own heritage has added benefits for children, says Maliha R. Ilias, a Bethesda mother of two who is Muslim. "It teaches them about tolerance and exposes them to fun cultural activities that are different from their own."

"We don't want to segregate our kids, but educate them so that they will respect all faiths," says Monica Shah of Hanover, Md., a mother of two who is Jain. "By empowering kids with knowledge, they can appreciate all aspects of our and other religions."

Should the Celebration Enter the Home?

While many families do not feel that celebrating Christmas threatens their cultural identities, there are differences of opinion as to whether that celebration should enter the home.

"We can share the joy and be part of others' festivals, and yet be clear that it is not ours," says Surinder Singh, a Sikh and father of two girls in Burke. In 2010, while the family was driving through their neighborhood, illuminated by holiday lights, Singh's daughter, then 6, asked when they would decorate their Christmas tree. His response was simple: "Just like we celebrate Gurpurabs―a holiday [commemorating] gurus who are gone―by sharing sweets and doing activities at temple, others celebrate Christmas by decorating trees."

Singh's daughters have been "very understanding. Once they were clear with the concept and differences, it was a matter of carrying on. We go to Christmas parties … and my daughters invite friends to share our celebrations. Everyone has festivals that are fascinating and colorful. You can still be part of them and live in harmony with other cultures while drawing a line to secure your belief," he says.

"It's important that they embrace their identity," says Mimi I. Hassanein, a Brinklow, Md., grandmother who raised her children as Muslims. "They know who they are and understand our religion and traditions, yet share the secular part of others' celebrations. Exchanging gifts is not against my religion. It's fun for the kids. But they do know that it's not our holiday."

The Tree

"I don't think it harms children at all if they are clear about their cultural heritage," says Ilias. "We have a small artificial tree that we decorate and put lights on. We try to make connections to our own Eid festivals and show how people often celebrate in similar ways."

It's not unusual for Indian families to have a tree or decorate during the holidays, says Sangeeta Agrawal, a Bethesda mother of two. Agrawal is Hindu and her husband is Jain. When her children were very young, the family "did the whole Santa thing," but moved away from it as the children grew older.

Celebrating Thanksgiving

What they haven't moved away from is celebrating with friends. Even now, with her children in their 20s, the holidays remain special, particularly Thanksgiving. "As immigrants, we don't have family nearby. So, our friends become our family. Our children grow up together in much the way that cousins would." She recalls one Thanksgiving in particular where several families put a spin on the conventional dinner. "We 'Indianized' it by using Indian recipes but substituting traditional Thanksgiving ingredients."

"My children know they are Jain and why we are vegetarian," says Shah. As a child, Shah, whose parents are from India, "celebrated like the average American family … except that the food was different. There wasn't any turkey." That tradition continues today.

The secular practices surrounding Christmas are also part of her family's traditions. "Santa comes to our house too," Shah says. "We have a Christmas tree. The kids decorate it and put up stockings."

For some families, the holiday season is a way to more fully assimilate into a new culture. A refugee from Vietnam, Sandra Vu Le came to the U.S. in 1975 at the age of 6. Her family's Thanksgiving tradition "of eating turkey cooked with an Asian flair" dates back to her childhood, when her recently emigrated parents served a Thanksgiving dinner at their restaurant that was more like "chicken curry with a French baguette," says the Olney resident. "They had no idea how to cook a turkey. It was my best friend's mom who showed us how to cook one using Asian flavors that suited our palate. It tastes almost like a Peking duck. We still do it that way."

The Thanksgiving tradition of being grateful is one Vu Le, her husband and three children embrace. "I remind my kids of how difficult it was to get to this country and why they should appreciate and celebrate the freedom we have here," she says.

Blending Traditions

The blending of Vietnamese and American traditions is evident in the way Vu Le, raised Catholic, and her husband, raised Buddhist, celebrate Christmas. Vu Le and her extended family--she has seven siblings--gather and exchange gifts, something that was uncommon in Vietnam. "We adopted that part of the American culture," she says. What's different is that at the end of the exchange, her parents rise and her father addresses the family, passing out li xi (red envelopes). "He'll put a lottery ticket in the ones for his kids and money in the ones he gives to the grandkids. That's the Vietnamese part."

But what "I love most is the end," says Vu Le. "After my father says how proud he is of his kids and family, he and my mom sit. Then, each of us, starting with the eldest sibling's family, stand together in front of my parents, say their thanks and then give gifts. In Asian cultures, respect for parents is utmost."

"Since we live here, we like to follow American traditions," says Bela Gandhi, an Ashburn mother of three girls who is Jain. "During the season, we decorate a tree and put lights on it. We want the whole house illuminated. The girls don't like ours not to be illuminated when all the others in the neighborhood are."

The Gandhi family embraces the season with gusto. "Festivals are a chance to recharge our batteries―an opportunity to socialize," she says. During the holidays, the Gandhis and other families take turns hosting gatherings―teen dance parties are a favorite. Because some Jain families choose to fast on Thanksgiving, the Gandhi family often holds its celebration on Friday.

The best thing about the holidays, according to Gandhi, "is to be united as a family." To that end, family members use the season as an opportunity to look back on their year together and share their accomplishments. "We would select pictures and make a PowerPoint presentation that would include what everyone did and things that were new," says Gandhi. "Then we'd forward it to all our family and friends. In 2012, we started making YouTube videos so that we could show our dances ….We love to dance―it could be fusion or Bollywood dancing."

Come New Year's Eve, Agrawal and her family often find themselves at a friend's dance party where they "rock Bollywood tunes," says the Bethesda mom, who believes her children benefited greatly from being a part of two cultures. Agrawal has never second-guessed her decision to embrace the American holiday season. Not to do so would have been "a huge mistake in terms of parenting. We've chosen to live in this society. It was a choice. It would be cruel to deprive children and isolate them from something that is so warm and welcoming."