Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
Originally published December 2005. Republished December 22, 2011.
Read Ed Case's Response, "I Still Say 'Chrismukkah' is a Bad Idea."
"Nobody's ever tried the peace thing. We are selling it like soap." - John Lennon, 1969
Last year, Edmund Case wrote an editorial in InterfaithFamily.com headlined "Chrismukkah is a Bad Idea." In his commentary, Case wrote, "The concept of a holiday that combines Hanukkah and Christmas is meant to be light-hearted. But below the humorous surface are serious issues of integrity and respect."
I am the founder of Chrismukkah.com, the guy behind the bad idea. In most respects, I agree with Mr. Case. Indeed, just below the surface of Chrismukkah are some serious and troubling issues. However, for these very reasons, I believe that Chrismukkah is a good idea.
Clearly, Christmas and Hanukkah are totally different holidays. Even a Hebrew school dropout like me knows that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus while Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabees' triumphant victory against religious oppression. Other than calendar proximity, the two holidays have little "meaning" in common.
However, some, including Mr. Case, seem to have misinterpreted the true meaning of Chrismukkah. Chrismukkah is not intended to replace either Hanukkah or Christmas. Chrismukkah does not aim to diminish or make light of the religious significance of either holiday. It does not try to syncretize Christianity and Judaism. Truth be told, Chrismukkah is not even a holiday… not literally. It's more a metaphor.
Like so many other start-ups, Chrismukkah.com began on our kitchen table. Two years ago, as newlyweds with a six-month old in the crib, my wife and I sent out hand-made "Happy Chrismukkah" greetings to friends and family. We were inspired by a satiric holiday portrayed in a trendy TV show and we wanted to make light of our new interfaith family. After getting positive reviews from recipients, we decided it might be fun to turn our faux holiday cards into a real-life product. The line between parody and reality blurred.
As a fledgling business, we hoped our cards and gift items would appeal to others in our same multi-faith boat. We wanted to solve an annual dilemma: what non-boring holiday greetings could one send to interfaith families or mixed-faith individuals? Only after we started receiving national media attention, some flattering, some critical, did we realize how subversive the Chrismukkah concept really was. Chrismukkah discussions appeared on countless blog sites and chat rooms. Some wrote to say just the name itself was offensive. When right-wing conservative pundits began issuing press releases denouncing Chrismukkah, we knew we had hit a nerve. We were fully aware that strictly theologically speaking, Chrismukkah was nonsense. But, with the frightening rise of religious fundamentalism in America and around the world, the notion of different religions celebrating in harmony seemed to be noble and idealistic.
One thing was clear. Were it not for the millions of families who already celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah under the same roof, Chrismukkah would not exist. For those of us who do, Chrismukkah is a befitting name to describe the hectic, sometimes stressful, often contradictory, yet generally wonderful time of year when we do our best to balance our mish-mash of traditions and obligations.
Rather than calling Chrismukkah a holiday, we began to think of it as a state of mind and a mirthful mythology in which we intermarried couples could conspire. Like an exhausted Santa Claus and Hanukkah Harry sitting down together to share a meal of latkes and eggnog after a long night's schlep, Chrismukkah exists in our collective wishful thinking.
So how does one celebrate Chrismukkah? Any way you choose! There are no rules. There is no dogma. It's completely customizable to the particular needs of each celebrant. Take your favorite secular parts from Christmas and Hanukkah… the food, the lights, the snowmen, the songs… then mush them all together, being careful to leave the religious parts alone. Go ahead, spin the dreidel under the mistletoe without gelt… ummm, guilt.
In my own family, we celebrate Chrismukkah with a dollop of curiosity and a sprinkle of self-deprecating humor. We found that by celebrating our new one-size-fits-all "holiday," the playing field was leveled. Chrismukkah added a bit of levity to our own December dilemma. You see, in most ways we're fairly typical, but in other ways we're not.
Michelle's father is a career pastor with the progressive denomination United Church of Christ. He marched on Washington with Martin Luther King in the early 60s and to this day remains a social activist. Michelle's sister was born in Korea and adopted at the age of three. She and her husband, who is from India, have three children. Michelle's brother and his half-Japanese wife have two kids. Michelle has traveled extensively around the world, spending much time in the emerging countries of Asia. Perhaps as a result, she leans towards the teachings of the Dalai Lama and Buddhism. Family gatherings are always interesting. My mother grew up in Germany during the 1930s. My grandmother's parents, the Cohens, fled to Israel (then still Palestine) after Hitler came to power. My grandmother decided to stay in Germany with her husband, a Lutheran who was confident the Nazis were all talk and the trouble would blow over. A few years later, my mother was expelled from school because she was a "mischling"--a Jewish mutt. She lived through horrors I cannot imagine, but because her father was not Jewish, she was not sent to a concentration camp. After the war, my mother came to America.
Violence from religious fanaticism book-ended my father's life. He grew up in a prominent Jewish family in the north of Germany. By 1938, things had become very difficult. In November, the Hitler Yugen destroyed their home and business on KristallNacht. They managed to get out just in time, losing everything except their lives. Eventually finding their way to America, my grandfather became a leader in the New York German-Jewish community. He co-founded the synagogue where I was later Bar Mitzvahed. For my father though, the traumas of his boyhood in Germany always haunted him.
Sixty-three years after KristallNacht, burning debris from the collapsing World Trade Centers rained down on my father's building, shattering windows and setting it afire. He was stranded and missing for two days in his smoke-filled thirty-first floor apartment. He died two years later, never having recovered from the shock. He was a grandfather for less than a year. These milestone events were very much on my mind when we launched Chrismukkah.
Throughout my life, I have known the burdens and responsibilities I carry as a Jew. I am proud of my heritage. I am aware of community concerns about our zero population growth, the high incidence of intermarriage and what this could mean for Jewish continuity. Yet, when I met and fell in love with Michelle, her family's religion was not an issue for me, nor mine to her.
Despite the role Chrismukkah has played in our lives, Michelle continues to celebrate Christmas and I Hanukkah just as we had before we married. I light the menorah and she the tree.
Like most interfaith couples, we enjoy sharing our rituals. After Thanksgiving, we go as a family to the Christmas tree farm to select the perfect conifer. Michelle loves sifting through her box of vintage heirloom ornaments, now together with our daughter, whom we have decided to raise as a Jew. Together we decorate the tree.
Over the years, Michelle has learned to pronounce "Baruch ata Adonai" with reasonable credibility. We look forward to the annual Hanukkah party at Temple Beth Shalom, spending time with fellow members, many of whom are also intermarried. Then we fly to Indiana to spend Christmas week with Michelle's parents and siblings. I go with them to Christmas Eve candlelight service, always feeling a little awkward and self-conscious, yet enjoying the music and dare I say… feeling just a wee bit joyous.
Chrismukkah is not for everyone. If you're married to someone of the same faith, it serves no purpose. Yet for people who fell in love with someone even though they were a little bit different from themselves, Chrismukkah might be just the thing. Chrismukkah celebrates free-thinking, non-conformity, open-mindedness, and the embracing of diversity. It's a way to break down barriers that separate us. It's a small act of defiance, a protest in a world where religious intolerance and killing continue to dominate the headlines. Most importantly, Chrismukkah celebrates what we have in common rather than what makes us different.
Yes, maybe it's old-fashioned and naïve to think such thoughts, but then, I don't think we're alone.
Merry Mazel Tov to all and to all a good night!
"Imagine there's no countries,
It isn't hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace...
You may say I'm a dreamer,
but I'm not the only one,
I hope some day you'll join us,
And the world will live as one." *
* Lyrics by John Lennon