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Wax and Tinsel

Late December rolled around, and at thirteen years of age, my friends and I decided to initiate an annual night of Hanukkah gift-exchange and celebration. The girls were all giggles and ribbons running up the path to my front door, but as soon as they entered and saw my living room, smiles turned to confused expressions and I was left to explain.

A divide clearer than the Mason-Dixon Line bisected my living room into two decorative arenas: one replete with hanukkiyot (Hanukkah menorahs), dreidels, and gelt, and the other with stockings, fake holly, and the ominous Christmas tree.

At this point, it was my job to give the speech: "Yes, we celebrate both holidays. No, we do not commemorate the birth of Christ. Yes, we decorate our tree, but really, it's a symbol of family and shared experience."

My family has celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas since I was born. A poignant and oft-related memory of my mother's is when I taught her the Hanukkah blessings at the age of four before my father returned home from work. To my father's surprise, she was able to sing along with us that night. After the blessings, we retired to the rug in front of the fireplace, under the Christmas tree.

This melding of traditions is as normal to me as any other ritual practice. To many, my family's involvement in "both sides" is an enigma, but my parents were always very careful to convey the universal messages of Christmas--family, love, and peace--and left the job of savior to Judah Maccabee.

As children, my parents always brought my brother and me to see the decorated Yuletide-themed windows of Sak's Fifth Avenue and Macy's in Manhattan. We stood in awe at the sight of those mechanical "Night Before Christmas" figurines, polished and dancing before the stocking-bedecked mantels. But our jaws dropped just the same at the even brighter sight of burning candles in all five of our family's hanukkiyot. The animals on my Noah's ark hanukkiyah weren't as dynamic as the Sugar Plum fairies, but the giraffe sure looked great with a small flame atop its head.

Until the premiere of "The O.C." on TV in 2003, I thought my family had conjured the world's most unique interfaith December celebration. But Seth Cohen and friends one-upped me with "Chrismukkah," which turns out to be less of a combination of holidays and more of a day of cleverly combined symbols. While yarmulkes designed as miniature Santa hats miss the point, the show's characters are clearly drawn together for the "spirit of the season"--togetherness and love--and not for an authentic commemoration of either holiday. It may be a fake holiday, but at least it holds meaning to those fictitiously celebrating it.

A distinction must be made between combining the holidays, and celebrating each of them. Chrismukkah, as a combination of Christmas and Hanukkah, is a paradox of a holiday. The events which Christmas and Hanukkah commemorate are contradictory to one another. However, a person can certainly celebrate both holidays without combining them, and when this happens in an interfaith family, either one or both of the holidays' authentic stories are effectively lost. In my family, the Christmas story had to go. But my mother's traditions are important to her, and we have found a way to celebrate the holiday by commemorating the universal themes that dovetail with it.

Flash forward to December in the Asaro-Berman family.

It's the eighth night of Hanukkah, and the Jewish side of the family (sometimes joined by members of the non-Jewish side) congregates at my grandparents' house. We eat my father's brand of sweet potato latkes, light a hanukkiyah that belonged to my great-grandfather, and marvel as the older cousins teach the younger ones how to spin a dreidel upside-down. Within a few days, I'll start helping my mother prepare for Christmas Eve, which is always spent at my parents' house. My mom's side of the family, who compulsively fill the house with fattening Italian pastries, arrives in full. Sometimes members of the Jewish side show up as well. We fill our stomachs with freshly made mozzarella, grilled eggplant and pesto linguini until childlike urges force us to open our presents. After looking at photo albums and laughing at family photographs for hours, everyone grabs one more cannoli for the road.

On the surface, these celebrations are as divergent as they come. Certainly, I identify with our authentic celebration of Hanukkah, and our revamped, theme-based celebration of Christmas. But beneath the wax and tinsel, it's a fire in the fireplace, a hypothetical snowfall, our Winter Solstice CD series, and my family, together.

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. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Yiddish for "money," usually refers to chocolate coins given on Hanukkah (and used as bets during the dreidel game). A cabinet- or cupboard-like structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.
Joelle Asaro Berman

Joelle Asaro Berman was the editor-in-chief of JVibe, a magazine for Jewish teens. She now works for the Foundation for Jewish Camping.

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