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By Jordyn Rozensky
For some of us in interfaith homes, December can highlight sticky situations. There are questions of how to balance traditions, how to keep in-laws happy and complicated questions about religion. But December also offers a unique opportunity to embrace new traditions. In my own interfaith home, for example, each year we trim a tree made out of blue tinsel, which we fondly call our âHoliday Neutral Tree.â
Recently I met up with friends to honor Christmas and Hanukkah by baking a batch of Hanukkah themed Christmas cookies and talking with a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old about the holiday traditions in their family. (Spoiler: Thereâs not much of a dilemma here). In case youâre interested in trying this at home, hereâs what youâll need:
Step one: We started our afternoon by chatting about our favorite aspects of the holidays as we set out our ingredients. As the oven preheated to 400 degrees, I asked the 10-year old his favorite part about Hanukkah. âThe presents. And family.â I asked the same question about Christmas: âThe presents. And the tree.â
Step two: We grabbed a large bowl and started mixing. First, we combined the butter and sugar. Next, we carefully cracked the eggs and stirred in the vanilla. Finally, we took turns adding and mixing in the flour, baking powder and salt.
Step three: While the dough chilled, I turned my journalistic attention to the 5-year old. His answers were much like his older brotherâs. One of the main things I noticed was that neither of the boys seemed too confused or upset about the holidaysâin fact, the only concern about Hanukkah and Christmas happening at the same time was the fact that there were fewer days dedicated to holidays this year!
Step four: After the dough was mixed, chilled and ready, we rolled it out on a floured surface and began cutting the shapes. Our cookie cutters were the shape of a menorah, a Star of David and a dreidel. My next question: Do other kids at your school bake Hanukkah and Christmas cookies? Both boys looked at me and shruggedâif other families were struggling around balancing the holidays, it didnât seem to trickle down to fifth grade or pre-school.
Step five: We placed the cookies in the oven and set them to bake for 6 to 8 minutes. While we waited for them to cook (and then cool), we paused to learn a bit about latkesÂ and check out the Christmas tree. During this moment of perfect synergy, I turned to the parents: âI think celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah together is pretty normalized in your family. The kids seem to be pretty OK with how this all works out!â
Step six: As we mixed together the ingredients for the Hanukkah cookie glaze, I learned more about how the holidays work in this family. âWhen we first married, we spoke about how important Christmas was as a tradition. Ultimately, thereâs not a lot of religion or church in how we celebrateâbut there is a lot of tradition. If you think about it, celebrating tradition is as Jewish as it gets.â
Step Seven: We coated our cookies with glaze and got to decorating. Hereâs where imagination took overâand our Hanukkah cookies turned in Hanukkah, Christmas, Valentineâs Day, Halloween AND Star Wars cookies. There wasnât a lot of dilemma, just a lot of love, a lot of tradition and a whole lot of sugar.
We were late. âTwas the night before Christmas, and all through the aisles of Target, my husband and I were doing our version of stuffing stockings. We were running so fast we were practically sliding to try to fill his stocking and my festive Chinese takeout box before we left for his parentsâ house.
We each picked up cookie cutters for the other person, but unfortunately Target is not known for its Jewish cookie cutters. Although I found a package of winter cookie cutters for him, they still included a tree. I love Target and would buy out the entire store, but itâs not our go-to for Jewish holiday foods or items. We were lucky to find a menorah at one store the year before, though. (Whatâs funny is that my husband is the one who usually remembers to light our Hanukkah candles.)
We did our best, but in the end he still couldnât find cookie cutters for Hanukkah at Target. I think this exemplifies how I feel at Christmas: Takeout boxes and menorahs aside, it ainât easy beinâ Jewish.
Growing up in a college town in Iowa, mine was one of the few Jewish families around. I still remember wanting to connect with other kids celebrating Christmas while we were ordering Chinese food and going to the movies. So although I feel guilty about it, thereâs a part of me thatâs happy that I finally get to celebrate Christmas. We open presents and bake cookies. It all works like clockwork until I go to church with my in-laws on Christmas Eve and hear the word âJesusâ one too many times. And, suddenly, I feel more alone than ever.
The winter holidays are easier and harder since I met my husband. Now I have the right person to celebrate them with, but it has come with a conflicted sense of identity. Instead of the clearly defined separation from Christmas that I grew up with, I canât remain on the outside of the holiday and culture that surrounds us in the States. I still want to remain outside, but Iâm also inside the phenomenon.
The phrase âDecember dilemmaâ implies thereâs a conflict. But while itâs easy to say itâs external, between spending time decorating the tree or lighting Hanukkah candles, isnât it more internal? Itâs the cognitive dissonance between being with people you love and hearing about the one they adore, and needing to escape into the lobby of the church. Itâs making Christmas cookies and needing to avoid most of the cookie cutters because theyâre outlining the differences youâre not discussing.
Now, however, Iâm trying a different strategy. For my husband, the holiday season was incomplete until we had a Christmas tree in our home. I still have trouble unfolding this umbrella tree (and not just because itâs larger than I am), but now I try to see it as a traditional symbol, not a religious one. Indeed, the tree is a fake one that my in-laws took with them when they moved from house to house; itâs literally part of their familyâs history.
Helping my partner lug the tree up our basement stairs is part of helping him observe his holiday. (Our cats try to help set up the tree, too, but their version involves eating the tinsel instead of putting it up.) Itâs all part of our life together. I used to walk through the store aisles, see menorah and dreidel ornaments and feel confused. Now I understand that these are pieces of new traditions we are creating. In a way, when we add these to a Christmas tree, we are resting symbols of a smaller Jewish holiday on the branches of a much bigger Christian one. We all make choices. I never anticipated having a Christmas tree in my home, but I always knew there would be a menorah shining out the window.
Christianity started when people began following a Jewish man. He searched and others found him to be so wise they thought he was the Messiah. Although Jews think he was a good man, we disagree with the Christian conclusion. This could be considered, simply, a major difference of opinion. The weird part is that itâs between Christians and Jews, rather than between two Jews (who would, of course, have three opinions).
We hold different beliefs and lug different traditions out of our storage closets. And Target may or may not have our cookie cutters. But in the end, I think each of us would like a secure place to keep whatever cookie cutters weâve bought, and family to help us fill them with dough. My mother-in-law has a fabulous recipe, and although she keeps it close, I think it involves elements found in many kitchens: love, warmth and laughter. Â Maybe a little bit of teasing and schmaltz, too.
1.Â Thoroughly cream shortening, sugar and vanilla. Add egg; beat until light and fluffy.Â Stir in milk. Sift together dry ingredients, then blend into creamed mixture.Â Divide dough in half. Chill 1 hour.
2.Â On lightly floured surface, roll half of dough to 1/8-inch thickness.Â Keep other half of dough chilled until ready to use.Â Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters.Â Bake on greased cookie sheet at 375 degrees about 6 to 8 minutes. Cool slightly, then remove from pan.Â Makes two-dozen cookies.
ByÂ Elizabeth Vocke
My husband jokes that I only married him so I could finally celebrate Christmas. And I admit that I do love Christmas. I love the anticipation and excitement, the coziness of the season, the decorations. I also love Hanukkah, but I think itâs more difficult to create that same sense of excitement, though for the sake of our 8-year-old daughter, we do try.
Itâs taken all 11 years of marriage to figure out how to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, and we still donât have it all figured out. This year will be even more difficult because Hanukkah starts on Christmas Eve. I like to make a big deal out of the first and last nights of Hanukkah, but this year I donât see that happening.
I vividly remember the first year I decorated our house for Christmas. I enjoyed creating a snow scene using white and blue ornaments in a crystal bowl, plus a beautiful white garland. It didnât feel religious, just festive, but was definitely meant for Christmas.
My husband walked in and said, âOh, look, you decorated for Hanukkah!â Well, no, actually. I decorated for your Christmas holiday, dude!
In fact, decorating for Hanukkah was not something I thought Jewish people even did, and itâs only been bit by bit over the years that Iâve started adding Hanukkah items to our holiday decorations.
Fast forward to today and we have a house loaded with Christmas decorations, plus menorahs and dreidels, and Iâve made peace with it all. But we still donât have all the answers.
We do have annual traditions.
We have a big Hanukkah celebration with my family that is fun and festive and raucous. We host a latkes and hot dogs party for the neighborhood kids (most are not Jewish), and every year I go into my daughterâs class and teach the students about Hanukkah and how to play dreidel. I love these things.
Every year we also drive around looking at decorations on Christmas Eve, watch National Lampoonâs Christmas Vacation, read âTwas the Night Before Christmas and enjoy a big Christmas celebration with my husbandâs family. I love these things, too.
Yes, our holidays are filled and busyâbut fun! And so by now we should have it all figured out, right? Well, no.
Every year we discuss (debate?) if weâre going to church for Christmas Eve with my mother-in-law. My husband is actually the one who doesnât want to go. Ironic, right? Some years we go, and some we donât.
Christmas Eve, a night I really love, is often rushed and stressed trying to cram everything in (see above). Hanukkah still sometimes feels anti-climactic, and weâve been known to forget to light candles a night or two. Hanukkah presents are also often less exciting. Letâs face itâone present just doesnât compare to a pile. In fact, our daughter tells us that she asks Santa for the big, expensive presents because she figures heâll bring them to her, and for Hanukkah sheâs open to whatever we want to give her. Little does she know.
So, like most things in life, in marriageâand especially an interfaith marriageâweâll keep trying and tweaking until we get it right. And by that time our daughter may be married with kids of her own!
By Kelly Banker
I am 8 years old. My siblings and I are huddled in my parentsâ bedroom, awaiting the precious sound of the Hanukkah bell. We have just come from an evening of lighting the menorah, dancing and singing in a circle and haplessly spinning a dreidel. Now here we are, eyes closed and ears open for the sound of that beautiful bell. My dad looks at us and slowly raises his hand, cupping the bell gently. He shakes the bell three times and the magic settles upon us. We giggle nervously as my mother slips out of the room to see if the Hanukkah Fairy has visited our house.
We wait for what seems like an hour, but is more likely about 10 minutes. Each minute crawls by as we stare intently at my fatherâs face, trying desperately to see if he is giving us a clue about where we should look, about what to expect. Finally, the long-awaited knock comes and my mother is at the door, beckoning us out into the hallway to search for the presents that the Hanukkah Fairy has left for us. We tear through the house, searching every nook and cranny to find the impeccably wrapped gifts, signed with a sweet note from the Hanukkah Fairy herself.
As each of us find our present, we sit in a circle on the green rug in the living room, running the fringe through our fingertips, waiting. When everyone has found their gift, we sit together in a circle and open our presents all at once. Together we exclaim, âThank you, Hanukkah Fairy!â And âHappy Hanukkah!â The angelic-looking doll, who we understand as a stand-in for the real Hanukkah Fairy, rests on a table nearby. With her tightly curled blonde hair and blue eyes, she watches us as we thank her for bringing us such sweet gifts.
Fast forward to 16 years old. The Hanukkah traditions of my earlier childhood have worn away slowly, and at this point have dwindled to lighting the candles for one or two nights, perhaps with some singing that reminds us all of our younger days. The magic of lighting the candles remains, though. No matter how few or how many nights bring us together for the lighting of the menorah, I am always left with a sense of wonder that I cannot explain. I am awestruck by the beauty of the blessing, the solemnity of it, the gathering of voices and the soft glow of the menorah lighting up the dark night.
I was at least 18 years old when I learned that, in fact, the Hanukkah Fairy is not a staple of Jewish practice, but rather a very creative concept devised by my intermarried parents. You can imagine my shock and laughter when I found out from more observant Jewish friends that they had never heard of the Hanukkah Fairy, and that in fact she sounded like a blend of the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Hanukkah and Christmas. I remember that moment of learning; I remember feeling an immediate surge of pride for my parentsâ ingenuity. They created a ritual that became meaningful for our family that in many ways merged their two traditions.
My father was raised Catholic, but no longer identifies with any religion. My mother is Jewish and identifies as such, but more in an ancestral sense than in a practicing sense. As such, my childhood was typical in many ways of interfaith families: We celebrated Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah and sometimes Passover, and for many years we attended a local Unitarian Universalist church. We were raised to have a deep respect for all religious traditions yet without a true grounding in any particular one. The open approach to religiosity in my childhood, far from being a limitation or barrier, has in fact been transformative for me as an adult.
For the past several years, I have slowly begun to delve deeper into spiritual practice, first through an exploration of Goddess traditions, and then through a connection with earth-based Jewish practice, primarily in Renewal Jewish communities. I love every moment of this choice. Had I been raised with a more dogmatic approach to one or both traditions, I feel that my relationship to God and Jewish practice would be different; more difficult, perhaps, to return to. Now when I light Shabbat candles, or sing the Shema or make Havdalah, I feel intimately connected to the tradition because I enter it from a place of consent, agency and pure joy. Every time I engage in Jewish practice, I feel that I am returning to myself, to God and to my ancestors.
As someone who is now engaged in rich and informed Jewish practice, I look back at the Hanukkah Fairy fondly. I feel proud of my familyâs invented tradition with such a lovely blend of Jewish and Christian practice. I feel so much gratitude that my parents decided to invent this blended ritual for my siblings and me, and that they chose throughout my upbringing to give us the agency to make our own decisions about whether and how we wanted to participate in spirituality. That precious, sweet sound of the Hanukkah Fairyâs bell rings for me now and always as a reminder of that profound familial tradition and the blessing of coming from an interfaith family committed to action, choice and knowledge.
Kelly recently earned her BA from Carleton College in Religion and Womenâs Studies. She currently works as a resident organizer at Moishe Kavod House and as an intern at Mayyim Hayyim. She also teaches Hebrew school and yoga at local synagogues. Kelly has also worked as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence and as a doula. She loves movement, running in the woods, poetry and the moon.