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December Holidays in Our Blended, Interfaith Family

Hanukkah on Christmas night. I didn't know whether to be pleased or apprehensive. You see, my daughter and her family are Baptists who celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. And I am an active Jew. The tradition in my blended family is for my Baptist daughter and her family to spend at least one Hanukkah night in our home. And we often get together on the first night of Hanukkah. We light many hanukkiot (menorahs), at least one for each family member. We read a liturgy that includes psalms. I retell the story of the Maccabees. We eat latkes and sing “Maoz Tzur” (Rock of Ages). .

When the holidays overlap, or are completely separate, it seems relatively easy to share in each other's celebrations. This year the twenty-fifth of Kislev (in the Jewish calendar) and the twenty-fifth of December occur on the same day. I wondered if my six-year-old grandson would be confused having Christmas in the morning and Hanukkah at night. But my daughter told me that he is already looking forward to celebrating both holidays in one day. A double celebration!

My daughter also told me that my grandson, Caleb, was looking forward to lighting his own menorah at my house. I was thrilled. We made it together a couple of years ago, decorating a series of clay blocks with Hebrew letters on them. It is a wonderful hanukkiah that can be put together in different ways. The shammas (helper candle) stands taller than the other candles. Caleb enjoys moving the pieces of his hanukkiah around to make different shapes, and he likes choosing the colors of candles that we use in all of our Hanukkah menorahs.

Our Hanukkah holidays have always been fun, although often hectic. Last year, I gave my grandson a music box with a handle that when rolled, plays “Maoz Tzur.” Caleb made it go faster and faster and we all got silly trying to keep up with the beat.

We have spent the past few “First Candle Nights” alone as a family. I have a book, Judah Who Just Said No, and while the candles burn, I have traditionally read it. I stop at the appropriate moment for Caleb to say “no” very loudly. He may be a little old for it this year, I'll have to see.

We won't be alone this holiday. Friends as well as family will join us for latkes and candle lighting, which will make the evening feel quite festive. We are preparing white potato and sweet potato latkes (I admit it--I use a Cuisinart to grate potatoes and onions--no more bleeding knuckles for me!). And I also make applesauce using a variety of apples, just apples and water simmering until soft. The scent of applesauce mingles with the scent of potatoes in a most pleasant way. Hanukkah music will play in the background as the guests arrive. And I'll have little gifts for everyone.

My Jewish husband and I usually visit with my daughter's family on Christmas Day. We give and receive gifts, admire their tree and sing some Christmas carols together. This year, since my daughter and family are singing in their church choir, we won't see them on Christmas morning. But we will have an opportunity to hear her sing with the choir at candlelight services during the week before Christmas.

My daughter's biological father was not Jewish. When she was growing up, our family celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah in our household. The Christmas tree filled our living room with blinking lights, but when we lit our hanukkiah in the window, we unplugged the Christmas tree. For the twenty minutes that the candles burned, we watched them and sang. And I thought of our most blessed religious freedom in America that allowed us to celebrate in our own ways. When the candles burned out, we turned the tree back on and sang again.

This year on December 25, my Baptist daughter and her family will share part of the day celebrating Hanukkah with my Jewish husband and me. We will share our holidays with each other, whose religious traditions are different. And we will celebrate the differences that exist in our one family. They have planned a Christmas after-church lunch with another grandmother. So, my husband and I will visit their tree on Christmas Eve. We will exchange family presents then.

When I visit their Christmassy home, I don't think of the religious aspect of the holiday, even though I know that they do. The tree with its ornaments is reminiscent of the tree that I had for my daughter when she was a child. And the presents also don't seem religious. I know that this year my grandson will be getting a remote-controlled car and his older step-brother a remote-controlled Jeep. My grandson's step-sister will also receive secular gifts.

I must admit that I feel distant from the religious side of Christmas. When I asked my daughter how she and her family feel about celebrating Hanukkah with us, she replied that Jesus was a Jew, and he probably celebrated Hanukkah, so it feels completely appropriate to celebrate Hanukkah with her Jewish family. She is also clear that she wants Caleb to know his Jewish heritage.

So I focus on how the holidays, each in its own way, bring light into the world at the darkest time of the year. Ours will be an extended celebration of our two religious traditions, joined by the common theme of light and separated by our differing visions of how light is brought into the world.

And we always respect that difference with love. There is and can be unity within diversity.

Hebrew for "Stronghold of Rock" (more commonly known in English as "Rock of Ages"), a Jewish liturgical poem sung on Hanukkah after lighting the candles. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.
Paula Lee Hellman

Paula Lee Hellman is education director at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire. She and her Jewish husband have a blended family, which includes children and stepchildren, grandchildren and a step-grandchild from their previous interfaith marriages.

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