It can be difficult for parents to instill in their children the religious significance of the December holidays. It can be even harder when the parents have different faiths. This is how Pat Canes, who is Christian, and her husband Michael Canes, who is Jewish, celebrate Christmas and Hanukah with their three children. The Canes live in McLean.

Christmas lights and menorah candles glow in our home, both providing a warm spark amidst December's chill. Hanukah and Christmas, two distinct feasts, need not be homogenized to offer hope to a world filled with religious bigotry, misunderstanding and persecution.

For our family that hope is deep and personal because my husband is Jewish and I am Christian. To add to the spirit of the season, my spouse was born on Christmas Eve in Israel. We turn what could be a serious holiday problem into joyous celebration.

We welcome our families into our home for an annual gathering on or near Dec. 24.

Our three children are related to Jewish, Christian and nonbelieving relatives, and there are usually some 30 persons who party with us, from the most recent newborn to the most age-wise grandparent.

This coming together now enters its second decade. To make things most appropriate, Christmas Eve is often one of Hanukah's eight nights, as it is this year.

Observing both holidays, as well as festivities for my husband's birthday, need not blur the essence of any one celebration. In this land of liberty we are given the right to respect one another's religious beliefs and to tolerate their symbols. We are not threatened or coerced into accepting or denying the way in which we believe in God. Hanukah and Christmas can even be viewed in purely historical terms.

At our family gathering we choose to highlight common heritage.

Lighting the menorah is a ritual that all freedom-loving persons can share. Hanukah is significant as one of the first successful battles for religious liberty.

In 165 B.C. the Maccabees' victory ensured Judaic identity, preserving that faith for the child whose birth we honor at Christmas. The menorah calls to mind how holy oil sufficient for light for only one night burned in the temple for eight days.

Christmas commemorates the arrival of a special infant from the House of David. At Hanukah and Christmas, lights burn that remind us that the Lord is with us, the same one Lord.

December is traditionally a time to pay homage to the rekindling of light in a frequently dark, bleak month. The pagans held December festivals, pausing in awe of light in its most secular sense. Jews and Christians have deviated this winter solstice to a season of sacred light.

Christmas and Hanukah proclaim blessings for people of good will.

It is fitting in our family to say "happy Hanukah, merry Christmas" and to say "happy birthday" to the head of our home.

As we begin our family meal we pay tribute to the beauty of faith. Our children read from Psalms, prayers common to all Bible believers. After the bountiful buffet, we sing "Happy Birthday" to my husband and gather around the baby grand. There the children perform for the adults. The achievements range from prize-winning piano pieces to string selections to a song or tale by a preschoolers. Applause for the youngsters signals a finale to our gathering.

People linger, exchanging gifts and last-minute news. This is the only time each year that some of those present encounter persons from another faith on such an intimate level.

As the lights continue to glow, our hope is that sharing these miracles will continue to our childrens' children and beyond. Each year brings its own new meaningful memories. One particular remembrance says what our gathering is all about. A Jewish grandmother (of cousins who come each year) joins us when she can. She had escaped Nazi Germany with her husband and children despite peril and difficulties.

She has brought to us a lovely green table runner with red flowers with the instruction to use it for our annual feast. Her offering will always have a special place on our holiday buffet -- a reminder that families and people of different faiths can be joyous together.