On This Pandemic Solstice (and Yalda Night)

Author Susan Katz Miller, circa 1969.

And so we reach the darkest and shortest day of the year, at the close of a very long, dark year.

In this moment, how do we carry on? As winter descends, our traditions point us to flames, lanterns, sparkles, candles, moonlight, stars. We crave light; we create light. We gather like the first wolves that dared to approach the edge of a prehistoric campfire. Did those wolves stop to ponder why humans build fires? Did they struggle over whether or not to approve our campfire liturgies–the stories or songs we sing? Of course not. Just so, we humans can share wonder and a sense of peace when transfixed by the light of a menorah, of flames reflecting off tinsel, of an electric star perched on a cliff over a little town, of a blazing Yule log in a hearth–whether or not we claim these rituals as our own. Allowing ourselves to feel calm or delight or awe does not require a common language or theology.

The winter solstice is a moment we experience together as denizens of the northern hemisphere. You may see the solstice as a simple scientific fact–without need for supernatural belief of any kind. Or you may embrace the solstice as the inspiration for rituals that date back to the earliest gatherings of humankind. Whether our celebrations are indigenous, Pagan, Abrahamic, Dharmic, or purely astronomical, we gather in the darkness to reassure ourselves that we have each other, and that the light will return.

When my children were in preschool, the very wise teachers left religious celebrations to the families to explain or celebrate at home. They understood that school or government-sponsored Santas would exclude some children. Instead, they created gorgeous paper lanterns with the children in December, and then led a solemn winter solstice parade through town, culminating in hot cocoa. The celebration was secular, and yet profoundly moving. The children learned something of the science of the earth and sun, rotation and axis, but also, the universal human impulse to create warmth and light (and taste sweetness) in darkness.

Just days ago, on Hanukkah, I found myself wrapped in a blanket, gathered around a firepit, in the backyard of a friend who recently welcomed two Afghan refugees into her home. Our guests had never experienced Hanukkah before. We lit the candles, said a blessing, and sang the song about “kindling new the holy lamps,” culminating in these lyrics:

Yours the message cheering, that the time is nearing, which will see, all set free, tyrants disappearing.

For people who had just fled the Taliban, the theme of freedom clearly resonated. But Hanukkah has several intertwined themes, and so I mentioned how the timing of this holiday reenforced the theme of light in the darkness for those in the northern hemisphere, connecting Hanukkah with Diwali, Christmas, Yule.

Hanukkah 2021, photo Susan Katz Miller

One of our new Afghan friends immediately saw and explained the connection to the solstice celebration of Yalda Night (also known as Chelle Night) in Persian communities–including in Iran, Afghanistan, the Iranian diaspora in southern California, and now, of course, Afghan refugee communities in a new diaspora. Yalda Night predates Islam, and is tied to the birth of the Zoroastrian sun god, Mithra.

In Persian cultures today, people of all religions celebrate Yalda Night with traditions including staying up all night, reading the Persian poetry of Hafez, and eating pomegranates, watermelon, and charming cakes shaped like watermelon. The red color is thought to represent life blood and the red of dawn. Tonight, our new friends will celebrate their first American Yalda Night around a firepit in Maryland, in a household of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists.

I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being. –14th-century Persian poet Hafez

We wait for the light, for spring, for relief from this tenacious virus, for the ability to travel and gather without fear, for tyrants to disappear. As we wait, we reach for poetry, song, sweets, and fire, to sustain us. And we reach for each other, even if it must be in masks, even if it must be at a safe distance, like wolves wary and skittish at the outer edge of the campfire.

Tonight is the solstice. Feel the warmth of the fire. The sun will return.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

An Interfaith Child’s Hanukkah and Christmas

I’m very pleased to announce that Being Both is the December selection for the #UUreads program. I wrote this piece for Beacon Broadside, the marvelous blog from my publisher, Beacon Press. To read it on that blog, click here.

Snow in Hawley, PA

An Interfaith Child Claims Cathedrals

Cathedral ceiling

The many Jewish holidays of autumn have concluded with Hanukkah, and winter now provides a time for interfaith families to connect to Christian relatives and traditions. Even if raised Jewish, or as atheists or humanists, many interfaith children will celebrate the secular, or Pagan, aspects of Christmas: the sparks of light and gold in the darkest season, the sweetness of gingerbread, the bright warmth of holly and peppermint, the scent and promise of evergreens.

In interfaith families like ours, raising children with both religions, this is a season for educating our children about the religious meaning of Advent and Christmas while celebrating our family’s Christian heritage. This year, the season began with a momentous occasion: my husband’s brother was ordained as an Episcopal priest. My husband is the great-grandson of an Episcopal Bishop of Newark; his uncle is also an Episcopal priest. My mother, too, was raised as an Episcopalian. While Jews think of religion as a birthright, Christians are more likely to believe that religion requires adherence to a creed. And yet, clearly, the existence of Christian family history and culture, and attendance at family weddings and funerals in churches, has a formative effect on interfaith children, whatever religious beliefs they discover in themselves, whichever religions they decide to practice or not to practice in adulthood.

And so it was that I found myself part of an extended family in a glorious 19th-century Gothic cathedral recently, celebrating this ordination. As an interfaith child, I claim cathedrals. Though raised Jewish, I had an early epiphany about the power of cathedrals at Chartres, and another at a concert at Saint John the Divine in New York, and yet another at the otherworldly modern Sagrada Familia cathedral designed by Gaudi in Barcelona. I find inspiration in the soaring symmetries, the secret nooks, the historical and theological symbolism, and the superb music.

Sagrada Familia, Gaudi, Barcelona

As the ordination service began, the organist played the “Wachet auf!” (Sleepers Awake!) theme from a Bach cantata, and I felt deep pleasure. Is this because my (Jewish) father still plays Bach at age 89? Or because I grew up listening to the lowbrow but irresistible pop jazz version by the Swingle Singers of “Wachet auf!” in the 1960s? And resonating too, is the fact that at a family Bat Mitzvah just the week before, my cousin the violinist played another Bach cantata, commonly referred to as Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. Is it even possible to completely disentangle Jewish and Christian culture, in my life, in my family, in general?

As an interfaith child who was raised in and still claims Judaism as my religion, I do not take communion in the Episcopal Church. But nevertheless, I felt awe and joy at this ordination. I felt enveloped by the superb choir, I harmonized with family on the hymns, I pondered the mysterious verses from Isaiah about a six-winged seraph. Through art and music and poetry in this setting, I felt connected to both my Middle Eastern and European ancestors: to ancient Judaism and to early Christianity, to the darkness of the Middle Ages, and the glory of the Renaissance.

At the heart of the ordination came swinging incense, the Bishop with his ornate crosier, the vestment, anointment, and the ancient ritual of laying on of hands: all to mark a sacred moment. For me, the moment is indeed sacred: a celebration of the decision of the ordinands to devote their lives to the spiritual care and comfort of those in need and and to creating more sacred spaces, sacred moments, in which I hope to share. The way I see it, believing that this moment is sacred does not require me to have any particular belief about the divinity of Jesus, or divinity in general. I claim this moment as part of my inheritance as an interfaith child, and as a human being who responds to the transcendence of cathedrals.


Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Hanukkah Chronicles: Midweek Interfaith Glitch

In the darkened dining room, our family of four gathers around the Hanukkah candles, gazing into the flickering flames and pondering our favorite, inspiring final phrase from “Rock of Ages“:  the part about “tyrants disappearing.” We have hit a groove on night four, with everyone remembering all three verses, and my husband’s gorgeous harmonies giving our a capella rendition real depth.

Then I stride into the living room and face the empty evergreen branches. “Okay, now we have to switch from the Jewish channel to the Christian channel and trim this tree.”

My fifteen-year-old daughter looks up in dismay.  “Mom, too abrupt! I hate when that happens.”

Epic fail, as the kids would say.

I am trying to provide an unvarnished depiction of the benefits and drawbacks of choosing to raise children with two religions.  Clearly, this was a moment when the drawbacks came into clear focus.  As an interfaith child, I have been celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah all my life. I’m supposed to be the expert on this. How did I find myself at this awkward moment? I was trying to do too much, failing to provide enough space for the two holidays without creating a distressing mash-up.

So here’s the good news. We have managed to say a blessing over the candles and  sing each night of Hanukkah, and there have been joyous and tender moments. On the first night, my parents, alone in Boston, got on the speaker phone so that we could sing all three verses of “Rock of Ages” in English together, my family’s tradition. In a year when the holiday does not fall during a school vacation, we appreciate the technological assist in  connecting my children to their only Jewish grandparent at Hanukkah.

On another night, we celebrated, as we do each year, at the home of some of our closest friends, a rare Jewish/Jewish family in our town. They spoiled us with both white potato and sweet potato latkes (not the kind from a box that I make). And we joined in the  hilarious and frenetic Hanukkah klezmer dancing traditional in their family.

The bad news is that it is even harder in an interfaith family to meet the challenge of making time, with school events and lessons and meetings and homework, to fit in a meaningful Hanukkah moment. And that’s where I screwed up. I saw a window in the calendar, a night when we did not have particular plans beyond lighting the candles, when I thought we could get the tree trimmed. The tree had already been waiting on the porch for several days, and was now sitting patiently inside on its stand in the corner. The nakedness of the tree had started to feel like a silent rebuke. Was I giving space to my husband, to my children, to anticipate Christmas?

In other ways, I had already minimized some of the Christmas anticipation to make more room for Hanukkah and simplify the season.  I decided years ago that we would not light Advent candles, or open a daily Advent calendar, even though these are lovely traditions, precisely because I wanted to clear space for Hanukkah.And the truth is that I felt the candle-lighting Advent tradition, in particular, felt too close to Hanukkah in its form.

So on night four of Hanukkah,  I moved a little too quickly into Christmas mode, and everyone felt it, including me. The fact that we all noticed, that it felt like a rough transition, does, ironically, reassure me that the overall plan is working. These are substantive holidays, with deeper meaning, for me, for my children. If they were superficial celebrations, the transition would not have mattered so much.

After a few awkward moments, we got into the festive trimming mode. Nat King Cole helped, as did the memories unwrapped with each ornament. Our cat hid inside an empty box and played with the crumpled newspapers. Our dog, who has perpetually worried eyebrows, paced about and looked vaguely concerned by all the unfamiliar objects. My son’s analysis: “Kitty is Christian, and the dog is Jewish.” We strive for balance, even in our pets.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

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