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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.