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This interfaith holiday season has been trickier than I thought. If there is a lot of planning, cooking and gift buying for one holiday, then the two holiday celebrating seems impossible. My family celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. But, we are not just a Jewish/Catholic home. We are a Brooklyn Jewish and Mexican Catholic household. This means a few things. First it means that I had to decorate with two faiths in mind, cook with two faiths in mind and buy gifts with two faiths in mind. What it also means is that I messed up a lot of traditions, which I now know I need to fix for next year. It’s hard trying to get everything right and I’ve been so concerned about teaching Helen, our 1-year-old, about our different traditions that I forgot to relax and pay attention.
Here are a few examples of the way I historically ruined part of the holidays. Apparently in Mexico, Christmas is a big deal but it’s something called “Las Posadas” that’s an even bigger deal. The “Posadas” begin on December 16 and end on December 24 (Christmas Eve). In Mexico it means a party every night from the 16th to the 24th and a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem in search of lodging. Although I heard Adrian mention the “Posadas” I assumed this tradition was on Christmas day. On Christmas Eve while Adrian was at work, I was making a traditional Mexican punch to surprise him with and while reading the recipe I read the story of the “Posadas” and realized I HAD MISSED THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE MEXICAN CATHOLIC HOLIDAY! Great.
That was mess-up number one. Here’s something else. Hanukkah began the same night as Christmas Eve this year. I was supposed to make tamales (a tradition in Mexico on Christmas) and latkes. Out of my concern for how to make the tamale recipe perfect, I FORGOT TO MAKE THE LATKES. Great.
That was mess-up number two. It gets better. Little did I know that tamales take almost four hours to make! The recipe said one to two hours. But, ask anyone from Mexico and they will laugh if you say one hour. I found this out later. I had told Adrian not to eat at work, so he got home at midnight when I thought the tamales would be ready and we ended up waiting until 2:30 a.m. when they were finally ready and we were so tired that we ate one each and went to bed.
That was mess-up number three. On Christmas day we went to my brother’s house with the baby. My brother has twin boys and he and his wife threw a Hanukkah party. My mother brought the latkes to that party and we all lit the menorah and had a great time. Then Adrian, Helen and I went to Adrian’s friend’s house and saw their tree and their baby Jesus statue. Helen had a great day. But, when we got home I had another recipe I had yet to make and I was so exhausted that when I went to put something in the blender I forgot to put the top on and green tomatillo sauce splattered all over the kitchen (and my mother who had come over to watch the baby while Adrian and I made dinner).
That felt like mess-up number four thousand. I was upset. First I couldn’t believe I had missed the week celebration before Christmas. Then I couldn’t believe how bad my recipes were. But both Hanukkah and Christmas are celebrations of miracles. I waited for one. And in a moment of frustration I thought of the Hanukkah story.
The Hanukkah story is about not having enough of something, or thinking one doesn’t have enough of something. On Hanukkah the Jews celebrate the small band of Jews who defeated the Greeks during the time of the second Temple. When the Greeks made all of the oil in the holy temple impure, the Jews found a little bit of oil left. But, the oil they found was only enough to last for one day. And then a miracle occurred and the little oil they had come across ended up lasting for eight days. Hanukkah is the celebration of light.
Christmas too is a celebration of light. The lesson of Hanukkah is that sometimes in great darkness a miracle can happen. The birth of Christ teaches this same lesson. A lot of the challenges my family faces during the holidays has to do with teaching our daughter to respect and understand both of our religions and cultures. It is about starting new traditions and sticking to them so that when she grows up she can feel the love of both faiths and choose her own path. But another challenge is the need for others to take our beliefs seriously. At the Jewish homes we go into we have a need for people to take us seriously and the same goes for the Catholic homes.
Adrian and I visited two of his friends’ homes during the holidays. Both friends have children. At the first house his friend’s daughter who is 7 years old ran to greet us at the door and took Helen out of my arms so she could carry her to her toys and play with her. At the second home, the other friend’s daughter is Helen’s exact age. They played with dolls, stuffed animals and books. At my brother’s house my nephews are a few months older than Helen. They all ran around laughing and opening their Hanukkah presents. These are the real miracles of light. Children have no inhibitions, no preconceived notions. They want to play and explore. They want to love and be loved. Sometimes out of total darkness they appear. They are the rare oil, the spark that lights the whole Beit HaMikdash (The Holy Temple).
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.