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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.
By Rabbi Ari MofficÂ
While InterfaithFamily is a Jewish organization, we naturally work with individuals and clergy of other faiths and often get requests to hear about topics from another religious perspective. As the December holidays approach, Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, reached out to Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block, who herself was raised in an interfaith household, to share her views.
Many of the articles and blogs on our website feature families who choose Judaism. Here we offer a perspective of someone who chose to become a Christian pastor in the hopes that it will be interesting to all of you and model the ways that we can listen to each otherâs experiences. Rabbi Ari Moffic conducted this interview over email, and we thank Rev. Gonzalez-Block for sharing her thoughts with us.
What would you say is the religious message of Christmas (in a nutshell)?
Christmas is a holiday which celebrates the birth of Jesus, who Christians believe to be the Messiah.Â In the weeks leading up to Christmas, churches observe the Advent season, which is a time of waiting and reflection in preparation for the Messiahâs coming. Christmas is also an occasion of great joy because it is a reminder of Godâs commitment to Godâs people, as exemplified by sending the gift of Jesus.
What are some of the cultural (not religious) aspects of Christmas?
Christmas throughout the centuries has expanded from being a strictly Christian religious holiday to a more cultural one â especially here in the United States.Â This can get tricky for Jewish and interfaith families who may participate in cultural aspects of Christmas. There can be much judgement for assimilation or for seemingly confusing Jewish children. Family members and others may accuse parents of evoking a feeling to their children of not being fulfilled through the Jewish holidays alone.Â Some families like German Jewish ones may have had cultural Christmas traditions going back generations in America. Christmas carols can be heard on the radio airwaves, and persons of different faiths may put up lights or gather with family and friends. In fact, some of the immortal Christmas carols were written by Jewish composers for mainstream audiences. Interestingly, most of societyâs favorite Christmas traditions are not necessary directly related to Jesusâ birth story. These includes traditions around Santa Claus and the act of decorating Christmas trees – both of which have emerged out of different cultural contexts and have been incorporated into the way this holiday is celebrated.
How can Jews make sense of a Christian partner who may not be religious who wants a tree and the cultural elements?
There are many reasons why a Christian partner might want to celebrate the Christmas holiday. One possible answer might be found in the beloved character Tevyeâs favorite word: Tradition! There is certainly something comforting about celebrating a holiday (be it Christmas, Hanukkah, or Thanksgiving) in the way that oneâs family did. If a partner has childhood memories of decorating the Christmas tree and hanging up tinsel, the partner might feel drawn to carry on these practices in their new home today. For this reason, even a non-observant Christian partner may still want to share the âspiritâ of the holiday with the family and partake in some of the cultural or religious practices.
What are the values you hold dear around the Christmas narrative?
The Christmas story brings a deeply meaningful spiritual message to me: âGod is with usâ (which is what Jesusâs name, Emmanuel, means). In this narrative, God gives the greatest gift. God freely chooses to come to earth, not as a king bearing gold, but rather as a poor baby born to a teenage, unwed Jewish mother in a barn. In my eyes, this shows that God is not only committed to walking among us, but has a pronounced compassion for the marginalized and those in need. Made in Godâs image, we are called to be a gift to those around us, especially those who have fallen on hard times or feel far from God. Christmas is a wonderful time to volunteer and to help serve those in need.
What can someone Jewish expect when going to church over Christmas?
Get ready for lots of music! Christmas services in both Protestant and Catholic churches are filled with familiar holiday hymns – from âJoy to the Worldâ to âAway in Manger.âÂ Many churches do not play any Christmas songs during the Advent season, so Christmas is a celebratory time when the choir, congregation, and horn section all soar. The Christmas story is read aloud and the pastor or priest typically offers a sermon. If there is a Christmas pageant, children, and even adults may be dressed as shepherds, sheep, angels, wise men, Mary and Joseph, and perhaps even a real baby posing as Jesus. Many churches hand out candles to parishioners, and while singing âSilent Night,â the lights are dimmed. It is usually a packed house (not unlike the Jewish high holidays) and there is palpable energy and joy in the air.
As a Christian Pastor who grew up in an interfaith home, what is your message to other interfaith families over this sometimes overwhelming and emotionally fraught holiday season?
As someone who grew up in an interfaith home, where we practiced both Judaism and Christianity, both Hanukkah and Christmas were important holidays for my family.Â The ways Judaism and Christianity were brought into our family home came out of many trying and eye-opening discussions between my parents.Â My message to interfaith families who are navigating this coming holiday season is for partners to sit down together to discuss their spiritual and culture concerns and desires. By so doing, they can prepare for the holidays in a way that feels authentic and acceptable to them both. This will no doubt take a great deal of compromise, openness, effort, and may even require partners to put their shared needs before the social pressures of extended family and friends. If possible, partners should turn to clergy and trusted confidantes for further discussion and advice. The holidays, however difficult, do not need to be a âmake or breakâ moment for a couple, but rather can be a formative time to imagine together what spirituality will look like in their interfaith home.
Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block, who was raised in a Jewish-Christian household in New Jersey, is the Associate Pastor at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC.