This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
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My grandfather and me in 1975 at my Jewish family's Christmas celebration wearing our matching gifts.
Christmas is a week away and many interfaith families are busy with preparations for their family celebrations – buying gifts, packing for travel to relatives, baking, decorating, and shipping presents. This makes many in the Jewish community nervous.
They worry that engagement in this Christian holiday will confuse children who are otherwise being raised Jewish or diminish their Jewish identity. They believe that participation in Christmas is religious syncretism and will make it less likely that Judaism will be passed on to future generations. They say that to be Jewish; a home must not include any other religious observances because they create ambiguity.
Many interfaith families like mine agree with the point that a home should have one religious identity, and that is why we have chosen a singularly Jewish path. But identifying as Jews does not mean that we ban Christmas from our homes or decline to participate in the holiday activities of our extended families.
What many within the Jewish community fail to understand is that, for a large number of interfaith families, including mine, Christmas is not religious. Yes, Christmas is technically a religious holiday, although it is not considered to be the most important by the Church. It is simply the most popular culturally and socially, and that is how many Jewish interfaith families honor it.
According to InterfaithFamily’s 2013 December Holiday Survey, 88% of us celebrate a secular Christmas that lacks religious content. We give gifts; we enjoy a holiday meal and festive foods, and spend time with relatives. Most of us celebrate Christmas in the same way as I did as a Jewish kid growing-up in a Jewish family.
My childhood Christmas included a tree in my home, dinner and gifts on Christmas Eve with my father’s Jewish family, and a similar celebration on Christmas Day with my mother’s Jewish family. It was a period when everything slowed down, and was a convenient time for my family to reconnect with out-of-town relatives we did not see on a regular basis.
I thought that my family’s celebration was entirely secular because we were Jewish, and it was not “our” holiday. So, I assumed, when I met Cameron that I would experience a more religious observance. After all, my in-laws’ faith is very important to them.
My father-in-law is a graduate of theology school and a layman in the Episcopal Church, and my mother-in-law sits on the vestry. They attend services most Sundays. But not on Christmas or Christmas Eve (too many “C&Es” – people who only attend church on Christmas and Easter).
What I have learned since joining the Larkins, is that just because a family is Christian does not mean that their observance of a Christian holiday is religious. The Larkin family Christmas has no religious component; no church services or prayers, no reading of scripture or discussion of the nativity story. It is with the exception of stockings and more decorations, the same as my childhood Christmas.
Christmas Eve is a buffet dinner and a grab bag with my father-in-law’s extended family, and Christmas is a lazy, relaxing day filled with food and gift giving. Like my Jewish family’s Christmas, the Larkin’s Christian Christmas is about enjoying time with family.
So the concern in the Jewish world about interfaith families’ religious observance of Christmas made me cull through my memories for my most religious Christmas moment. What I realized is that the most religious thing that my family has ever done on Christmas is light Hanukkah candles.
When Hanukkah falls on Christmas, we observe, the holiday, religiously after our secular Christmas. If we are in Dallas, Cameron, Sammy, and I light the candles at sundown in front of our tree often with Jewish friends. If we are in Vermont, we kindle the menorah with my in-laws, sister-in-law, and nephew. Sammy, Cameron, and I say the prayers in Hebrew and our not Jewish extended family read the blessings in English. In these moments, there is more religion, spirituality and talk of God than there is in any other part of our family Christmas celebration.
I wish more Jewish academics; leaders, professionals, and laypeople took the time to understand the significance or lack thereof that Christmas has in the lives of many interfaith families choosing Judaism. Instead, they assume, like I did, that because Christmas is a religious holiday any observance of it must be religious too.
They also assume that all intermarrieds are the same; we all raise our children in two faiths or none at all, and allow our children to choose their religion when they are older. Therefore, celebrating holidays from different faiths must be syncretic and confusing. But just as there are different kinds of in-married families – secular, cultural, ritually observant, and somewhere in between – there are different kinds of intermarrieds including ones who have a solely Jewish identity.
For interfaith families like us who have chosen Judaism, and nurture their Jewish identity year-round through Shabbat and holiday observance, Jewish education and community engagement; what happens on one day in December has little, if any, impact on our embrace of and commitment to Jewish life. Just as the lighting of a menorah with Jewish relatives by an interfaith family that has chosen Christianity does not call into question the family’s Christian identity.
For dual-faith or no-faith families observing Christmas may well create ambiguity and confusion. I do not know; I am not one of them. All I can say is that our Christmas celebration has no power to shape the identity of my Jewish (interfaith) household, just as it had no power to influence my childhood connection to Judaism. So excuse me for rolling my eyes at the prognosticators who predict that Jewish continuity is in jeopardy because people like me are celebrating Christmas.
The most religious thing our family has ever done on Christmas is light Hanukkah candles.
Thanksgivukkah has come and gone, and we have racked up stories of latke-stuffed turkeys and donuts on the dessert table, and, most importantly, of the beautiful lights of the menorah on the Thanksgiving table. But before it becomes history for another 150 or 77,000 years, depending on how you count, I want to take a moment to appreciate what makes this year different for the Interfaith (Jewish/Christian) family. This year, Thanksgivukkah gave way to an easier holiday season, where we can focus more on celebration than challenges.
As it has for the last few years, the first week in December my inbox has filled up with announcements for events about the “December Dilemma.” The emails describe great-sounding panels with clergy from all walks of Judaism and Christianity offering to help me determine how to best parent through the month where our multi-faith background takes the starring role in our lives. But I have to say, its star is shining a little less brightly this year, because there is a little less dilemma before me.
As an interfaith couple, at its most challenging moments December forces us to articulate our faith choices in a way no other month does. How do we explain to our kids that they are a part of two families, even though those families’ traditions seem so divergent in this month? In putting out a menorah instead of a Christmas tree, are we trying to tell them that one thing is better than another? (We aren’t, by the way.) These questions are symbolic of the complexities of the choices we make for the four walls that define our home, questions that we navigate and re-navigate as individuals, parents and families all the time, the countless questions that probably led you to this website today.
And on top of the biggies that are highlighted this time of year, two slighlty smaller questions, the detail ones, always loom large for me in December. First, how do I make Hanukkah meaningful, when Christmas is just so gosh darn distractingly fun and wonderful? And second, how do I coordinate celebrating both with both sides of the family, and still minimize any “lost time” with either?
This year, Hanukkah started the night before Thanksgiving, so we squeezed in our candle lighting between packing and cooking the stuffing we needed to drive to New York for Thanksgiving dinner. As I mentioned last month, we spend Thanksgiving with my Jewish family, so the gang was mostly there for the second night. And then we had three whole nights on a holiday weekend, a rare occurrence for Hanukkah. With Christmas so far in the future that gift lists haven’t even been written yet, we could fully concentrate on Hanukkah – no Christmas party invites to juggle between candle-lighting, and barely an ornament display between me and the Hanukkah decorations at Target. It has been a lovely, small holiday, with plenty of nights to share with Grampy, a few with cousins, and two with friends. And now it is over.
Hanukkah is over, and I have three weeks to shop for stocking stuffers for my husband’s family, three weeks to scheme about which holiday events we’ll attend together when we visit them. It is almost like Christmas is in a different season. In our home, we talk about the importance of helping our Christian family celebrate Christmas, because it is an important and joyful holiday for them. This year, we’re done with our holiday, so we can fully focus on the help. Rather than choosing between one holiday or another, we did ours, and now we can move on to other things. My two detail questions are answered pretty neatly (although I will miss you on Christmas day, Dad!).
So it feels like I got an extra gift this December. And perhaps it is a reminder that even though we talk about a “dilemma,” in the end what most of us are trying to accomplish two things. First, to define our own nuclear family’s take on observance, and teach it to our kids with clarity and love. And second, between the long checkout lines and travel hassles and decisions about whether to light candles or strings of lights in our own homes, December is about balancing a whole lot of celebration and joy. If we focus more on the celebration and joy, maybe we can push the dilemma part of the equation off of center stage and into more of a supporting role.
Last week, Linda K. Wertheimer wrote for the Huffington Post about how a local grocery chain warmed her heart with a grocery bag featuring a menorah and a Hanukkah greeting. It’s a lovely, warm piece about sharing the holiday spirit. And I had two responses – first, an impulsive disappointment, as I remembered how I felt when my community “put a menorah on it” as a weak gesture to acknowledge differences. After reflecting for a moment, though, I think I get where Wertheimer is coming from, and I can see how her shopping bag can open a door to appreciation and hope.
Here’s an excerpt from the article:
“Then today it happened. The gesture was ever so simple. There, on one side of a local grocery store’s paper shopping bag was a picture of a menorah and the words, “The Wilson Farm Family Wishes Your Family Happy Chanukah!” On the other side of the bag, the greeting was “Happy Thanksgiving,” with a picture of a slice of pumpkin pie. Wilson’s, based in Lexington, a Boston suburb, is an old-style farmer’s market that grew into a large grocery store. They always have been careful to pay homage to Jewish holidays with Jewish-related foods, but I’ve never seen them put Hanukkah on a shopping bag.
Somewhat environmentally conscious, I had taken a reusable grocery bag to the store, but when I saw the Hanukkah bag, I couldn’t resist. I asked for one and gushed about how I couldn’t wait to show it to my 5-year-old son.”
Reaction # 1: Ugh
In her article, Wertheimer talks about feeling like her Jewish lens was invisible in the rural Ohio town where she grew up. My first elementary school was 3 miles from the supermarket in Lexington where Wertheimer got her shopping bag. 30 years ago, my Jewishness was just a smidge up from invisible in that community. In a school of about 300 kids, there were probably 7 Jews. Every December, the school erected a tall pine in the lobby, called a “holiday tree,” and put a star on top of it. To decorate the tree, the school asked us 7 Jews to color in paper menorahs, as our friends sat beside us and chose from a variety of Christmas symbols for themselves. And in the sea of Christmas symbols on the tree, our 7 menorahs hung lacksidaisically, looking lonely and out of place. But the school had checked a multi-faith box, and this holiday tree would welcome our parents into the school for the annual “holiday show,” a pageant of children performing skits about pine trees and angels and singing Christmas carols.
And that was the end of the story. Putting a menorah on the tree each December satisfied their need as a public school to acknowledge other religious traditions. With this childhood chip on my shoulder, for years I have bristled at the menorah amidst the Christmas decorations as a weak gesture towards understanding the richness of my faith.
Reaction # 2: Not so fast, Jessie
Fast forward those 30 years, and maybe I can see things a little bit more through Wertheimer’s eyes. One of my favorite parts of her article is when she talks about putting “Happy Diwali” on the shopping bag when the Hindi festival rolls around in late fall, and suggests that we use more opportunities to celebrate religious diversity. Maybe the storyline of the December dilemma could be more of a jumping off point, pushing us to open ourselves up and recognize the multitude of interesting, important, and often joyful holidays that happen for different religious groups throughout the year. What better way to build community than to focus a little more on the richness of each other’s cultures, in place of all of the disharmony and bad news delivered through the media every day?
Another thing hit me through the celebratory tone of Wertheimer’s article. I’ve always been hung up on the idea that Hanukkah is a minor holiday, so trying to acknowledge it along with Christmas is a misaligned attempt – why not give Christmas December but talk about Judaism in April when Passover arrives? But I think I’ve been focusing on the wrong thing. Hanukkah may be minor on the Jewish calendar, but it is beautiful. The lit Hanukkiah in the window makes the same gesture as the Christmas tree, to provide more light and invite warmth and cheer into our homes. As the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder, why not focus on every opportunity we have for more light?
So I think I say Thanks for the Hanukkah bag. What do you think?
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.
Our dog Brady loves spending time with Mac too.
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.
There was a time when Eric and I shared a love for The O.C. In the days before OnDemand, one of the most romantic things that my future husband ever did was to take copious notes of the 2004 season premiere when I was stuck at a community meeting that night and couldn’t watch it myself. It was a nighttime soap opera filled with hyperbole and totally unrealistic situations, the kind of show that I should be embarrassed about loving. But I admit it proudly, we were serious fans.
Even though I think that the prominence of the Cohens, the lovably complex interfaith family at the center of The O.C.’s drama, probably helped gain some ground for Jewish/Christian partnerships overall, I cringed when Seth Cohen asked the world to embrace Chrismukkah in the Winter of 2003. I’m going to show my cards here: I don’t believe that the answer to “The December Dilemma” is to combine holidays. Its not because I want to deny either Christmas or Hanukah – its quite the opposite. I love both holidays – and I love how marrying into a Christian family means I’ve had 14 years to get an inside view of how joyous Christmas is. But the holidays are so profoundly different – especially in their level of import to the religions of which they are a part – that to me combining them feels like a disservice to them both.
I have been reminded of my conflicting love of The Cohens and unease for the Chrismukkah they popularized as a new combination of holidays is coming up this year. With the first night of Hanukkah occurring on Thanksgiving, everyday folks, community leaders, and yes, makers of merchandise, have begun to proclaim 2013 the year of “Thanksgivukkah.” I first started hearing about the “holiday” via a mouthwatering post of Thankgivukkah recipes on BuzzFeed. It’s hard to object to a holiday that boasts sweet potato bourbon noodle kugel and pecan pie rugelach. From that first post, it seems to have caught on like wildfire….there are t-shirts, limited edition menorahs, a website (put up by Manischewitz), a Facebook page, and even a block party in LA. Not to mention a piece on this site about navigating the convergence of both holidays with Jewish family and those who do not celebrate Hanukkah.
So am I ok with it? Its growing on me….this idea that it is phenomenally rare (read this article to see just how rare), that there are totally great menu possibilities, and that my family will conveniently all be together to light the menorah for the first time (like many interfaith couples I’m sure, we usually spend Thankgiving with our Jewish family and Christmas with our Christian family, so Thanksgiving is already kind of a Jewish family thing). And part of my objection to combining Christmas and Hanukkah is that it forces an importance on Hanukkah that isn’t consistent with the rest of the religious calendar – making it easy to breeze over a true understanding of either Christmas or Hanukkah.
But Thanksgiving and Hanukkah might fit better together – they are both based on lore that don’t necessarily create something new (like a whole new religion!) but allow people to pause in a time of turmoil to consider new hope. And since we usually eat well before sundown but don’t light the candles until sundown, hopefully they’ll be a moment to pause in between and talk to our kids about each holiday, separately. And, finally, now that I have kids and am navigating life in a multi-generational, multi-faith family where the absolutes of my pre-kid 20’s seem a little fanciful, maybe I’ll soften up on Chrismukkah, too. No promises, Seth Cohen.
Saturday morning my family and I were at a children’s Shabbat service. Halfway through the service, our youth director asked the children to think of something they were excited to experience in the coming week. My son Oliver perked up and shot me an excited look, then reached his arm high into the air. I knew what was coming. We were going to cut down our Christmas tree the next day, and Oliver had been talking about it incessantly all week long. He is a child who hides his face and refuses to talk in Shabbat services, but Christmas trees could bring him out of his shell. I began sinking farther down in my seat and wishing this wasn’t happening.
Sure enough, the youth director called on Oliver first. “I’m excited to get our Christmas tree tomorrow!” he practically shouted. To the youth director’s credit, and probably in recognition of the number of interfaith families who are members of our synagogue, she asked Oliver whether or not we were going to cut the tree ourselves or buy it pre-cut. Oliver had no idea, but that didn’t stop him from saying we would buy it pre-cut. Then she said, “Sounds fun!” and moved on to the next child, who expressed his excitement for Hanukkah starting in a week. Which got Oliver excited, too. Hanukkah AND Christmas were so close? Amazing!
It was a nice moment, because she didn’t shoot him down or ignore his excitement. She did what a good youth director does and engaged him in conversation. Oliver was pleased that he participated. And I felt relieved and thankful for a youth director who understands interfaith families and excited little kids.
The episode reminded me of a Hanukkah/Christmas book called, “Light the Lights” by Margaret Moorman. I like it because it explores how both holidays use light during the darkest time of the year, and many of the sweetest interactions are about talking to your neighbors and observing your community as it prepares for the holidays. I especially like that you can’t tell which parent is the “Jewish” parent and which one is the “Christian” parent. Instead, both parents are equally participating and enjoying the holidays. It’s available at Amazon.com for under $10, and is part of the growing canon of books exploring both holidays.
So I just read the post from Benjamin Maron about “When is a Christmas Tree Just a Christmas Tree?” I can say that I totally relate to this. My daughters are being raised Jewish and their father/my husband, Alex, is Catholic and yes, we do have the Christmas tree and stockings and decorations. We don’t go to Christmas Mass though (or any mass really except if it’s for a family event on Alex’s side) and we don’t tell the Christmas story. We do have Christmas dinner with my husband’s family and there have been times my Jewish family has joined in as my daughter Kaitlyn’s birthday is Christmas Eve and my family rightfully wants to see her. We also do Chanukah, visit with my family, have latkes, play dreidel, watch the Maccabeats on You Tube (and we are seeing them in concert during Chanukah this year, how cool is that?) and listen to Adam Sandler’s Chanukah songs(although the first version is the best!).
My daughters identify as Jewish and respecting their dad’s and his family’s religion is not going to make them any less Jewish. My older daughter last December actually announced it in the middle of class. Her teacher had given out a work sheet to play a game to fill in the missing letters of Christmas carols and my daughter got up and said “Mr. Galvin, I don’t know this because I am JEWISH.” She then had me come in to her class that spring and do a lesson on Passover so her friends would understand her holidays. Celebrating another religion’s holiday doesn’t make you less; it makes you bigger than the sum of your parts. I am so proud of my girls and how they understand that what they are is not necessarily the same as everyone else and that that’s ok.
Do your children understand the differences and how do you explain it to them? I am still working on my five year old Megan understanding that men and women can be Jewish since she thinks that because her dad is Catholic all men must be Catholic and since mom is Jewish that all women must be Jewish.
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