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Published December 21, 2009. Republished December 2, 2013.
I'll never forget the night I lit my first menorah. It was three years ago on the first night of Hanukkah, and my Jewish boyfriend was away from home on business. Not wanting him to miss the most important night of his winter holiday, I offered to say the blessings and light the candles over the phone for him.
"I know I'm not Jewish," I remember saying. "But you'll technically be here with me, so that's good enough, right?"
|Matt de Turck took this great photo of a Hanukkah candle-lighting in a house with a Christmas tree.|
It seemed reasonable to us, and so began our first Hanukkah celebration in our first apartment together. Mike recited the three blessings to me slowly, and I tentatively repeated them while passing the glowing shamash over the first night's candle.
Half an hour later, I sat in peaceful silence with a half-finished glass of brandied eggnog. I was humming along to Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas as I watched blue wax drip down the stem of the silver menorah, which was reflecting the light cast by our seven-foot, glittering Christmas tree.
There, in my living room, was evidence that Mike and I could meld the best of both of our worlds. Mike could have Hanukkah and I could have Christmas! I was overjoyed at the notion of having so easily overcome the seasonal strife so many other interfaith couples go through.
I must have had a heavy hand when pouring my eggnog that night, because that wasn't really the end of mixed holiday hardships for Mike and me. But that night, after so reverently repeating blessings I didn't understand but knew were important, a great truth dawned on me.
After only a few years of navigating the interfaith holiday waters, I had realized there is a blinding similarity between Hanukkah and Christmas I believe to be overlooked by many. Each holiday was born out of hope and triumphant joy--one, a joyous victory over an oppressive enemy and the hopeful rededication of a sacred place, the other a humble beginning that brought promise and jubilance. These themes of life, hopefulness and joy are two things I think this world could use a lot more of.
Maybe one day this thread of similarity will be enough for Catholic and Jewish interfaith families everywhere to forge a common bond, and maybe not celebrate the other's holiday in their hearts but appreciate the miraculous things they represent.
Now, perhaps this all sounds like the ranting of a Christmas-crazed woman. Well, you got me there. I love Christmas. The whole bit. Bing Crosby TV specials, tinsel, Rudolph, the smell of pine and cinnamon, carolers, the hustle and bustle … and I think I've mentioned the eggnog. I'm that person who starts listening to Christmas music almost before Thanksgiving. It's a holiday so overtly steeped in tradition, I can't help but relish the waves of comforting emotions in the days leading up to the 25th of December.
My fondness for Christmas stems from a loving, warm childhood teeming with memories that will comfort me for as long as I can remember them. Yet somehow, the thrill of hope and the joy of family are things many people don't seem willing to acknowledge the two holidays share.
They're fundamentally not the same! Two completely different religions, two completely different holidays! Hanukkah isn't even that important a holiday on the Jewish calendar.
With so many naysayers poking holes in my theory, including my husband at times, the last person I thought would show some understanding was my mother. A devout Catholic all her life, my mom is still adjusting to the idea of Jewish grandchildren. But last Christmas, in a tentative show of appreciation for Judaism, she presented Mike and me with a Star of David Christmas tree ornament. It was rather large and white, with royal-blue glitter dressing the bounds of the star's inside.
While I'm not sure the ornament will ever make its way to our annual evergreen, I know Mike was touched by the gesture, and feels grateful for this tiny bit of compromise.
One hurdle of compromise I have yet to sail over is dealing with Christmas when we decide to have kids. The logistics of raising Jewish children while respectfully navigating the elements of everyone's traditions still makes my heart race a bit in anticipation.
How can I possibly understand the holiday envy young Jewish children may feel as their Christian counterparts get to fully celebrate a holiday that's become one part religion and three parts flashy marketing?
My mother-in-law told me that while growing up, she knew of many Jewish families who had a Christmas tree simply to give their children a sense of belonging with their peers. A sinking feeling of dread crept into my core. Am I dooming my children to a life of not belonging? Will they forever be between the two religions, drawn to mine by the promise of cartoon Christmas specials and a whole season of presents, yet belonging to my husband's and feeling like they're missing something?
During the past few weeks, I've read many articles here at InterfaithFamily.com on this topic. Some writers indeed felt pulled in two opposite directions without a resolution. Other contributors are new parents and still finding the right way for their families. They, like Mike and me, are determined to be the exception to the rule and raise Jewish children who love who they are and who also appreciate their non-Jewish parent's own traditions.
Can it be as simple as it was for me that night, celebrating another's holiday out of love and appreciation for his traditions and beliefs?
I'm going to do everything I can to make it that simple for my family. I have faith that somehow, my husband and I will find a way to give our children the best of both worlds. I don't know if I'll ever call this time of year Chrismukkah, but I do know the light and joy Christmas and Hanukkah represent will be celebrated in this household.
And trust me, there will be eggnog.