A Decorated December


Originally published December 13, 2005. Republished December 5, 2012.

The first time I heard the word Chrismukkah, I was walking out of a deli with a friend into the frigid cold of a December afternoon.

“Happy-Merry Chrismukkah!” She called to me as we each headed home.

“What did you just wish me?” I laughed as I called back over the afternoon traffic.

Seth Cohen (played by Adam Brody) on The O.C.

“A Merry-Happy Chrismukkah! You know, because you do Hanukkah and Christmas. It’s easier than saying both. I could say Kwanzakkah, too, but you don’t celebrate Kwanzaa. Get it?”

“Whatever you say. Anyway, Happy Hanukkah. See you soon!”

I headed home still mulling over my friend’s use of the word Chrismukkah. I had never before used the term and, during the December holiday season, if I came across a person whose faith background I didn’t know, I’d simply say, “Happy holidays” rather than presume one faith over another. Apparently, my one-faith friends knew more about blending holidays than I did, because in the coming months I heard about the Chrismukkah phenomena from many of my only-Jewish or only-Christian friends. I even had a friend who is training to be a priest cheerfully wish me a happy Chrismukkah. When I’ve asked what my friends mean, they answer, “You know, when you celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas together!”

This response, while by now expected, leaves me slightly uneasy. Some people see the term as simply a cute greeting for friends of interfaith households, and on one level, it is. However, on another level, it suggests an unnatural blending of holidays that gives me pause. Growing up in an interfaith home, I’ve had my share of religion juggling, and I celebrate both Jewish and Catholic holidays with my family. However, I would never intentionally mix traditions associated with one faith or the other. I may participate in religious traditions associated with both faiths, but I always differentiate between the practices that belong to my and my mother’s Judaism and those practices that belong to my father and my brother’s Roman Catholicism. Judaism and Catholicism exist side by side in my home during December and all other months of the year, but they remain separate religions in my mind.

Based on the appearance of my mother’s house between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, you might think otherwise. My mom decorates our house for every holiday–Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, and even the ever-popular non-Jewish holidays of St. Valentine and St. Patrick’s days. She puts cupids in the windows, pumpkin and candy corn wreaths on the front door, and cloverleaf flags beside the mailbox. Hanukkah and Christmas are no exceptions. Santa clauses and dreidels sit side by side on our bookcases, and we eat potato latkes and candy canes in the same meal. My mom once confessed to me that she was excited to celebrate her first Christmas with my father simply because she could finally hang a Santa Claus ornament on a Christmas tree. Today, along with paper cut-outs of menorahs and Stars of David, my Mom decorates our house with no less than eighteen Santa Claus figurines. However, the decorations are only a simple manifestation of her attitude toward religion in our home. She has always raised my brother and me in a setting where both Jewish and Catholic traditions receive respect. For her and for me, Christmas is not a religious holiday, but we appreciate that it is one for my Roman Catholic father and brother. We watch them set up a Christmas tree every year just as they watch us light each Hanukkah candle.

My Jewish mother and my Catholic father raised my brother and me, Catholic and Jewish, respectively, in an interfaith household that encouraged religious tolerance while fostering individual religious growth. The same principles extend to Christmas and Hanukkah. My brother can recite the blessings for the Hanukkah candles as well as I can sing “Silent Night,” but we don’t ever confuse the two. We share in holiday celebrations as a family, but we are always aware that our celebrations are of separate holidays and different religious traditions.

Some people have expressed concerns that playing “The Nutcracker” or decorating a Christmas tree detract from my Jewish identity in the same way that teaching a Catholic child to spin a dreidel or to sing “Maoz Tzur” might diminish his Catholic identity. I disagree. In reality, celebrating December holidays as an interfaith family enhances my religious beliefs as I simultaneously affirm my commitment to Judaism and share my traditions with others. Keeping Christmas and Hanukkah as two distinct holidays allows each to retain its own value, and celebrating them as an interfaith family grants us all greater respect for, and understanding of, each holiday.

So, for this year, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Holidays!