It May Seem Grinchlike, but?

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It may seem Grinchlike, but I am very much opposed to the fusion of Christmas and Hanukkah into a unified holiday. Regardless of where one stands on the spectrum of religious belief, merging the two holidays dishonors both Christian and Jewish tradition. Aside from falling at or around the same time of year, Hanukkah and Christmas have very little in common. Trying to imagine what celebrating the two as one would look like, I close my eyes and picture the following scene:

My family is seated for dinner, with platters of ham, latkes (potato pancakes), and eggnog displayed before them. There is a menorah (traditional candleholder) on a side table, which is decorated with reindeer at each candle’s base, and Santa holding the shamash (servant candle which is used to light the others). When the family begins to sing the Hanukkah prayers, they sing in Latin translation (with organ accompaniment) instead of in the traditional Hebrew. There is a tree, of course, ornamented with dreidels (tops) and stars of David. People are wearing Santa hats in lieu of yarmulkes (traditional head covering), and the children sing revised versions of standby Christmas carols such as “Yaakov the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Deck the Halls With Boughs of Latkes.” Before bed, the children set out sufganiyot (traditional jelly doughnuts) for Santa Claus, who will slide down the chimney, presumably wearing a yarmulke of his own.

Perhaps it’s hypocritical for me to advocate that interfaith families recognize both Christian and Jewish holidays separately–but I believe that when a family celebrates both, they should not be combined, regardless of how closely they fall on the calendar. I grew up in an interfaith household, with a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, and we always recognized both sets of holidays, albeit in a secular way. Our extended family on one side celebrated Christian holidays, and on the other celebrated Jewish holidays; we always celebrated both.

Although I’m sure that each set of grandparents probably wished that my sister and I were being raised in their religion, the fact of our celebrating both sets of holidays rarely–if ever–generated conflict. I remember once, when I was much younger and feeling rather bold, asking an older Jewish relative what he thought of the fact that I celebrate Christmas. “Well, Adina,” he said, his voice a throaty laugh, “Jesus was Jewish, you know, so I say why not celebrate his birthday? He is a sort of relative, no?”

I realize that in a holiday season as unusual as this one–with the first night of Hanukkah falling on Christmas–it may seem difficult, or at least time consuming, to acknowledge each holiday individually. Yet each is steeped in a unique cultural and religious tradition; each deserves to be recognized by following these traditions. In celebrating both holidays, the most important thing is to remember the meaning of each. Strictly speaking, Christmas is the commemoration of Christ’s birth; Hanukkah is a festival that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple. Hopefully, interfaith families will keep each holiday’s unique significance in mind, and celebrate with love and in the company of friends and family. 

In fact, this holiday season may prove a wonderful catalyst for allowing interfaith families to more formally introduce their extended families and mono-faith friends to Christmas or Hanukkah, if they have not already done so. I know that I will celebrate Hanukkah with my mother’s family, and also acknowledge Christmas with my father’s family, each independently. And I will have a friend visiting from England who will be attending her first Hanukkah celebration ever.

However other interfaith families celebrate this season, I trust that they will approach their festivities in a way that honors each holiday’s spirit and meaning.