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The dual holiday extravaganza this season is more work than I thought it would be. But, it’s important for me to keep the traditions from both my own family and Adrian’s family in order for our daughter Helen to grow up understanding and respecting her two faiths: Jewish on my side and Mexican Catholic on Adrian’s side. Also, Helen is 14 months old now and this Hanukkah/Christmas is really starting to come alive. This year both holidays fall on the same day! It feels like Moses and Jesus are somewhere eating latkes and drinking eggnog together.
From the beginning of my organization of the holidays, decorations were the first thing on my list. As far as decorations go, the question on my family’s minds was, “To tree or not to tree?” I’ve wanted a Christmas tree since I was a little girl in Hebrew school. When I was 12 I bought a plastic one from Rite Aid and hid it in the garage. I decorated it with colored balls and candy canes and I would go out into the garage to stare at it. But this year because of our interfaith family, and our new traditions that include our old traditions combined into one big tradition, I was curious to know if Adrian wanted a tree.
At first he did. We set a date to go look for one. But, after a few days he decided against it. We are being quite thrifty right now and he decided we didn’t need to spend money on a tree. “Next year,” he said. But, what he doesn’t know is that on Saturday when he goes to work at the restaurant at night, Helen and I will sneak out to buy a tree. It will be cheaper then because Saturday is Christmas eve so the tree people are looking to sell the rest of what they have for a lower price. I can’t wait to see Adrian’s face when he walks in and sees the tree. This might be a new tradition I’ve invented. Maybe every year Helen and I will sneak out to surprise her Papi! And of course, my 12-year-old self really wants that tree too.
I raided the aisles at Amazing Savings last week. I bought something called “Hanukah Tinsel.” Who knew something like this even existed! It’s tinsel but it’s blue and white with dreidels hanging off of it. Then I bought stockings with our family’s initials and filled them with Hanukkah gelt. Usually Hanukkah gelt is money, but I filled them with big plastic dreidels that have jelly beans inside. That’s my idea of Hanukkah gelt. Our apartment looks like the beginning of a crazy bat mitzvah/quinciñera/Christmas/Hanukkah party. Obviously, I’m more excited about this than anyone else in my family.
Our gift bags are also outrageous. We have gifts from Santa, Mami, Papi and Grandma. Then we have Hanukkah gifts. There’s one bag with Santa on it and he’s looking at another gift bag with a menorah on it, almost as if he’s remarking to himself “Now that’s a great idea to light my sleigh.” In my mind I see Santa climbing down chimneys holding a menorah and having a plate of latkes by the tree. In our Brooklyn apartment Santa has to come through the fire escape. But, he’ll get here somehow. I just hope no one calls the cops on him.
Today when Adrian goes to work Helen and I have to start shopping for the food on our Hanukkah/Christmas menu. In Mexico, a tradition on Christmas is a drink called “Ponche.” This is like a warm fruit punch that can be made with or without alcohol. Adrian likes it without alcohol. It has Mexican fruits, apples, raisins and sugar cane in it. Helen and I will go to the Mexican markets in the Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn and look around for these fruits and ingredients. We also need a bag of jalapeño and serrano chili peppers. Then we might make tamales or another traditional dish called “Pipian Verde” which is a pumpkin seed sauce.
For Hanukkah I always make plain potato latkes and zucchini latkes. And of course I have to make applesauce to go with it! In my family when I was growing up, Hanukkah was never one of the biggest holidays that we celebrated. But now that Adrian and I have Helen, I think it will become a bigger holiday than it was for me. I’m grateful that our two holidays coincided this year. To me it is a symbol that the world is changing and we are united even in our differences. I know that the holidays coinciding have to do with the 13 months of the Jewish calendar, but nevertheless I take it as my own personal and familial symbol.
Our apartment looks bright and festive. Also, this year I learned to knit and everyone is getting a Hanukkah/Christmas scarf! And there’s just one more thing I forgot to mention. In light of us trying to save money this holiday, I made homemade ornaments both as gifts and for our tree that we have yet to buy. They aren’t finished yet but they are in the shapes of elephants, reindeer, dreidels, menorahs, candy canes and of course, hearts. One special ornament is a circle with Helen’s hand print in it. That one symbolizes our two faiths as a circle, a meeting point, a never-ending sphere of understanding, communication and love. Two faiths, two holidays, one meeting point, one love.
I have always loved the holiday season, and celebrating Hanukkah as an interfaith family brings with it an extra dose of joy. When I was a child, my mother insisted that we wait until after my birthday, which falls in the first week of December, before any celebration of Christmas could commence. She wanted to make sure we didn’t detract from the first December holiday, my birthday, before moving onto the one with far greater hoopla.
My mother mastered the art of see-no-holiday and hear-no-holiday. If we chanced to see a Christmas tree on a car’s rooftop during the weekend after Thanksgiving, my mom would gleefully declare, “I don’t see anything!” When we heard the first Christmas carols on radios or loudspeakers, she’d call out, “I can’t hear anything, can you?” My mother always meant well with this gesture, even if it flew in the face of my own very real excitement about the coming Christmas season.
Only after my birthday, a few days into December, could we get out our own decorations, choose our tree, or play Christmas music on the stereo at home. My family continued this tradition well into my adulthood, such that even this year, my brother (who has been married for several years) apologized to me during our usual Thanksgiving phone call: “I think we’re going to get out the holiday decorations before your birthday this year.” I laughed, thinking it sounded like fun.
The first Hanukkah I celebrated with my Husband (then-boyfriend) began November 29, the day after Thanksgiving. We lit a small travel menorah in a hotel in Chicago, where we’d come to celebrate both holidays with his family. For once, I didn’t have to wait to celebrate a December holiday! I didn’t even have to avoid, as usual, Black Friday shopping, since I needed to finish buying gifts for my boyfriend well in advance of the busiest shopping day.
Now that I have celebrated over a decade and more Hanukkahs with Ben, I am used to the ebb and flow of the Hanukkah calendar. This year, Hanukkah starts on a great day, the evening of December 6, far enough into December to allow a few more days to shop and prepare, but not so late that we light the lights of both holidays at the same time. I skipped Black Friday shopping this year, but on Saturday I remembered that with Hanukkah starting in a week, perhaps I really should have joined the throng on the busiest shopping day of the year.
When we celebrate two holidays in my interfaith family, we hang white lights and blue lights and multi-colored lights all across the doorways in our home, and along the tops of bookshelves and curtain rods. Christmas-colored lights line the shelf on which we place our menorahs. We break out Jewish-star emblazoned Hanukkah place mats with matching blue napkins, and join them with green-and-red place mats and napkins. We bake paper-thin butter cookies in shapes appropriate for both holidays, and we make sour milk sugar cookies with colored icing. When I was a child, we called these red-and-green cookies “Santa Clauses and Christmas trees,” but now we’ve added blue-and-white menorahs, dreidels and six-pointed stars to the mix as well.
Giving the cookies the awkward name of “Santas and dreidels and menorahs and trees” is the closest we come to a December holiday mashup. Despite the holidays falling in such close proximity, we don’t hang dreidels on our tree, or call it a Hanukkah bush. We give each holiday its own separate identity as best we can, although this might seem difficult when the holiday books stack together and the red-and-green towels on our oven door hang right next to blue-and-white ones. Two holidays make for twice the festivities.
This year Hanukkah starts early, and my daughters reap the benefits of being in an interfaith family. They’ll compress a month’s worth of anticipation into a week’s worth of waiting. As we wait, we’ll tell the stories of Hanukkah as best we can, giving this holiday its own weight and emphasis. After Hanukkah ends, our daughters will still have more than a week of renewed anticipation as they wait for Christmas Day. They’ll dream and wonder about Santa Claus, and we’ll talk, too, about the birth of the historical Jesus, as best we can.
We unpacked our holiday boxes the weekend after Thanksgiving. I wish I could show you my mother’s face from our Skype call when we told her we were unpacking the boxes. Her expression relaxed, I’m glad to say, when I explained that Hanukkah started next weekend.
Before we unpacked our two holidays’ decorations, Ben wanted to know if I felt sure I was OK with it: After all, my birthday isn’t until later in the week.
“I’m sure,” I said. “The kids are excited, and truth be told, Hanukkah starts in a week, and I’m excited too!”
Do you prefer an early or late Hanukkah? How does your holiday season double the festive feeling?
Over the years, Hanukkah, a minor celebration that isn’t even in the Torah, has become the unofficial national holiday of the American Jewish community. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was promoted as the Jewish alternative to Christmas. Since then, many individuals and communal leaders have fought against the “make Hanukkah big” movement and urged Jewish families to refrain from embracing the idea of Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas.
But the reminders of Hanukkah’s lesser holiday status have not stopped its growth. What once was an eight-day festival has evolved into a six-week season. And many Jewish families are using the holiday to reafﬁrm their Jewishness in a big way. Instead of small electric menorahs in windows, they’re putting a Jewish twist on non-Jewish holiday decorations and traditions, declaring in a loud and proud way, “I’m Jewish!” For interfaith families, this increase in Hanukkah festiveness allows parents from other backgrounds to indulge their love of all-things-holiday while honoring their commitment to building a Jewish home.
As we move into the holiday season, here are some ideas for boldly sharing the light of Hanukkah. Share the creative ways you make the Festival of Lights special in the comments section.
Hang Hanukkah on the Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates: Wreaths and door decorations are not just for Christmas. Pinterest, Etsy, and eBay have many Hanukkah wreath styles and ideas for making your own. From rustic Jewish stars with lights to evergreen wreaths with Hanukkah garland and dreidels, there are many pre-made and make-your-own options. My neighbor hangs a Hanukkah banner on her front door and highlights it by placing an evergreen garland mixed with Stars of David on the surrounding doorframe.
Shine Some Light on Your Jewish Identity: Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, yet holiday lights have always been associated with Christmas. But in recent years, some Jewish families have decided to make holiday lights their own. A Christian friend, who is raising Jewish children with her husband, and loves holiday lights, decorates the outside of her house with blue and white LEDS. For those that like lawn ornaments, there are lighted Hanukkah characters and symbols including pre-lit Jewish dogs and dreidels, and 8-foot lighted inflatable menorahs.
Wear Your Jewishness on Your Sleeve (or Pants or Chest): Represent the Jewish tradition and stand out from the red, white and green crowd in cozy Hanukkah PJs, leggings, t-shirts, and underwear. Have some real holiday fun in an ugly Hanukkah sweater and menorah hat. Spin around your office Christmas party in dreidel socks.
Rock it Like a Maccabee: While you may not find any local radio stations that play only Hanukkah songs for six-plus weeks, there is plenty of great holiday music to get you in the Festival-of-Lights-spirit. Tune into Jewish Rock Radio on your computer or mobile device. Check out the Jewish A Cappella group the Maccabeats singing “Candlelight,” the Hanukkah version of “Dynamite,” and “All About That Neis.” Listen to “Miracle” by Jewish reggae rapper Matisyahu. Explore the music of Jewish rockers Dan Nichols, Rick Recht and Josh Nelson, and the Kosher Gospel of Joshua Nelson.
Deck Your Halls With Stars and Dreidels: Dress your mantel with silver tinsel and modern star garland. Hang Star of David paper lanterns. Add some festiveness to your home by dangling Hanukkah ornaments throughout. Add a Jewish twist to an advent with Hanukkah countdown bags that hang over the fireplace. Use Hanukkah tablecloths, napkins and dishes for the entire holiday. Get more ideas online.
Eat Like A Champ: Hanukkah follows the traditional Jewish story of “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” So, eat like a champion. Expand your holiday menu beyond latkes and donuts. Make different kinds of Hanukkah cookies and share with family, friends and coworkers. Enjoy a holiday breakfast with dreidel muffins and dreidel-shaped pancakes, or use your Hanukkah cookie cutters to make holiday-themed challah French toast. Bake Star of David cupcakes for a yummy dessert. Get creative with your traditional foods. Try squash or root vegetable latkes. Think outside the brisket and chicken box.
The other day, as the Halloween candy was being eaten and costumes were being put away, I saw a house decorated in Christmas cheer. It had a large wreath with balls covering one side of the home, and the frame was lined with bright red and white lights. I sighed and thought, “Is it really that time again?”
It seems that each year the holiday season starts earlier. What used to happen after Thanksgiving – holiday decorations in neighborhoods and stores, and merchandise on retailers’ shelves – now appears before Halloween, drawing out the seasonal cheer in a way that leaves many of us feeling exhausted before the holidays even arrive.
For Jewish families, the elongated season and ever increasing intensity with which Christmas is celebrated in the public sphere can leave us feeling more than a little Grinch-like. What to people who are not Jewish are non-religious symbols and accessories (trees, garland, lights, dancing Santas), are reminders to Jews that we are different. For interfaith families raising Jewish children, the commercialization of the winter holidays can make them feel particularly stressful and drag us into a competition between traditions that we all want to avoid.
In my house, we try to take the holidays in stride and treat them like any other celebration. We work to make our observance about family and tradition. But it is hard not to be lured in by the razzle-dazzle of Christmas, and every now and then, I find myself longing for a credible Jewish alternative to elves, and reindeer, and snowmen and Santa in order to add a little more sparkle to the Festival of Lights.
My friend Abra can relate. Abra, describes herself as a nice Jewish girl who, as a child, loved latkes, delighted in dreidel and coveted Christmas bling. At age 6, she started secretly decorating her closet with homemade boughs of holly and began purchasing Christmas ornaments. She says it was never about not wanting to be Jewish, it was just that she wished that Hanukkah came with more tinsel.
Now, as an intermarried adult raising two Jewish children she wanted to make being Jewish fun and the Jewish holidays enticing, while instilling in her kids a deep love of Judaism. Not an easy task at a time of year when the merry and cheer of Christmas abounds.
So, Abra created The Maccabee on the Mantel so that her children, and all Jewish children, could have something to call their own during this season of Frosty, Rudolph, and Old St. Nick. The Maccabee on the Mantel is a children’s book and snuggly toy solider doll that connects kids to the rich history and traditions of Judaism.
Mac, as we like to call him in our house, is not a Jewish Elf of the Shelf. He is historical rather than mythological. He does not possess magical powers. He does not report to a large man in a red suit. And he is not related to Hanukkah Harry.
Mac is a reminder that Judaism is full of human heroes who have achieved great things through courage, bravery, and sacrifice. He encourages us to retell our stories, and explore who we are and where we come from.
Mac does not twinkle and he does not make our mantels shine. But he does provide a more lasting radiance by reminding us to believe in miracles. To me, that is real sparkle and that is the kind of holiday tinsel I want my son to embrace.