The Dance of Hanukkah and Christmas: 8 Tips for Interfaith Families

Christmas and Hanukkah cookies, photo Susan Katz Miller
Photo, Susan Katz Miller

The Woolf Institute in Cambridge, England, works on Jewish, Muslim, and Christian relations. They asked me to write on how interfaith families will choreograph Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations this year. In general, organizations in the UK are more open to discussing interfaith families as a part of interfaith relations than their US counterparts are. I am grateful whenever anyone acknowledges the role that interfaith families can play in interfaith peacemaking. Visit the Woolf Institute blog to see my new post there, or read it below…SKM

The solar Gregorian calendar determines the timing of Christian holidays, while both the sun and moon guide the Jewish calendar. As a result, each year interfaith families must choreograph the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas in a new way. In 2016, this dance will require some expert steps, since the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve.

This convergence increases the complexity of preparation, and coordination, in order to give each holiday its own time and space and integrity. But after more than 50 years of celebrating both holidays, I know that it can be done, without actually mixing or blending or fusing the two together. Here are my eight strategies for mastering the Hanukkah and Christmas dance this year:

  1. Don’t forget Hanukkah on Christmas Eve. If you are traveling, remember to pack the Hanukkah menorah. In the excitement of Christmas Eve, don’t forget to set aside a few minutes to gather everyone and actually light the first candle. Enjoy the synergy of a glowing Hanukkah menorah and a sparkling tree, and talk about the common theme of light at the darkest time of year. Safety tip: If you are going off to a mass or church service, be sure to light candles when they will have time to safely burn down.
  1. Postpone Hanukkah gifts. On Christmas day, lean into Christmas. After a full day of Christmas and stacks of presents, do remember to light candles for the second night. But consider putting off Hanukkah gifts until later in the week. In fact, resist the false competition between the holidays that has given rise to the whole idea of Hanukkah gifts.
  1. Tell the Hanukkah story. Emphasizing the religious freedom angle in the Hanukkah story is a perfect activity this year. We are lucky to live in a time and place with the freedom to celebrate either, or both, or any religion. Singing the Hanukkah song Rock of Ages (different from the Christian hymn of the same name) in English rather than Hebrew on the nights you celebrate with extended Christian family members will make the story more accessible.
  1. Give to others. Once Christmas has ended, lean into Hanukkah. The middle nights of Hanukkah would be perfect for giving back, in lieu of more family gifts. Stress that both holidays encourage us to care for those in need. Engage children in deciding what causes they want to support with charitable donations this year.
  1. Organise acts of service. Christmas encourages empathy for those who, like Mary and Joseph, must travel and seek shelter. Hanukkah provides an opportunity to talk about how Jewish history compels us to work to promote social justice. Celebrating these intertwined themes by engaging in acts of service together to support refugees and religious minorities.
  1. Give Hanukkah gifts at the end. If your family does give Hanukkah gifts, wait until the end of the week when the novelty of Christmas gifts has worn off. Some families like to emphasize books and clothes as Hanukkah gifts for children, rather than toys, to further differentiate the two holidays.
  1. Time the parties. Hanukkah spans two weekends this year, and Christmas sits squarely on the first weekend. So the second weekend could be a good time for a Hanukkah party. Try a party on Friday night with the festive lighting of both Shabbat and Hanukkah candles. Or, plan a family New Year’s Eve party with the lighting of havdalah candles for the close of Shabbat, followed by Hanukkah candles. Or, arrange an elegant adult New Year’s Eve party with caviar on latkes, champagne, and gambling with dreidels.
  1. Try not to stress. As you move through the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas this year, don’t fret over a misstep or two. Everyone forgets to light candles on occasion. Everyone has a relative who makes some awkward comment about interfaith families. Everyone has a different comfort level with where to place the Hanukkah menorah in relation to the tree. Through it all, do your best to stay in touch with a sense of holiday joy.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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About That Interfaith Tree-Topper

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Peace card by emma’s revolution

We put a tin Mexican star with eight colorful points on the top of our Christmas tree. This star refers to the star that led the Magi to find the baby Jesus, as the story is told in the gospel of Matthew. And from a Pagan perspective (on a tree with Pagan origins), the star as a winter Solstice theme makes sense to me because we are more aware of the brilliance of the stars on the longest of all nights.

But this year, the number of interfaith families putting a six-pointed star, the traditionally Jewish symbol known as the Star of David, on top of Christmas trees seems to have reached some kind of critical mass. Reporters have been calling me to ask about this kind of holiday mash-up, or “Chrismukkah” celebration. And lovely interfaith couples have been tweeting and emailing me to market their mixed-faith holiday greeting cards and ornaments.

My family does not celebrate Chrismukkah, but we are beginning to feel outnumbered. One year, I had a very public and feisty back-and-forth with a blogger who both misunderstood and objected to my family’s approach to the holidays. Our family doesn’t hang dreidels or top the tree with a Star of David. Our approach to being an interfaith family has been to seek to provide our children with literacy in both family religions, and respect for the integrity of each. That has meant teaching and celebrating the two religions separately, giving them each space, in order to honor their specific historical and cultural and theological meanings.

Every interfaith family has to find the pathway that works best for them. For some, that will mean choosing one religion and celebrating the “other” holidays only with grandparents. For our family, it means celebrating both, but in separate, traditional ways. But for what seems to be an increasing number of more-or-less purely secular interfaith families, it has come to mean the freedom to create mash-up celebrations.

As Samira Mehta, an academic with a forthcoming book on interfaith families recently explained to her local newspaper, “In the past 20 years, Chrismukkah has become increasingly public. First, it has grown because of the increasing secularization of society and the growing number of ‘nones’ (those not affiliated with any institutional church or synagogue), and secondly the growing acceptance of multiculturalism in our society.”

I am all for accepting multiculturalism, for seeing what is shared and universal in our families and our cultures, and for celebrating together the theme of hope for peaceful pluralism in a world troubled by intolerance and violence. That is why the first ornament I placed on our tree this year was a card from our friends Pat and Sandy (emma’s revolution) who wrote the moving Peace Salaam Shalom song after 9/11, and created a graphic representation of these three words. While my family does not celebrate a mash-up of religions, we do acknowledge that there are historical ties between the three sibling religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And now, with Islamophobic politicians spreading fear, is a good time to remember these ties.

After hanging the Peace card on our tree, I wanted to stop there–to have this be the only ornament this year, to lift up this crucial message. But then our kids arrived home from college on the Wrong Coast, and we wanted to trim the tree together as a family, and put up all the beloved ornaments. And so we did that. They understand that the desire for peace must be universal, but on our tree we hang Christmas ornaments. Because even though my family has been an interfaith family for two generations now, we want our children to understand the distinct religious cultures, and the specificity of a history that continues to both unite and divide us.

 

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Hanukkah AND Christmas: 7 Books For Interfaith Children

 

Once upon a time, December holiday books for children focused on either Christmas, or Hanukkah. Now, many children grow up in Jewish families celebrating Christmas with Christian grandparents. Or, they grow up in Christian families celebrating Hanukkah with Jewish grandparents. Or, they grow up in interfaith families celebrating both. Here, I review seven Hanukkah and Christmas books, in order to help you find the right book for your young interfaith children or grandchildren.

1. The first popular book on this topic was probably Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (ages 3-5), from 1999. This sweet and simple story focuses on a girl participating in both holidays at home, but does not go into the underlying religious meaning of either one. This may be frustrating for parents who want to teach religious literacy, but for young children celebrating one or both of the holidays in a secular fashion, this book is a safe choice.

2. In contrast, I do not recommend My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story (ages 3-5) from 2010. The boy in this book feels embarrassed in school to admit that he celebrates both holidays. While emotionally dramatic, this plot twist does not ring true in my experience with contemporary interfaith children, and reading it could make children who feel just fine about celebrating both, feel a sense of shame. The author seems to have bought into the (increasingly mythical) “December Dilemma” conflict. Avoid this book.

3. Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama (ages 5-8) from 2012, features jazzy modernist collage illustrations, and a recipe for Cranberry Kugel. The mixed media style echoes the hipster parents in this book, who mix the holidays together in a sort of Chrismukkah mash-up. They hook candy canes on their menorah, and leave latkes out for Santa. If your family does this kind of blending, this is your book. But for families trying to help kids to understand and respect the differences between the two religions, well, this is definitely not your book.

4. Published last year, Eight Candles and a Tree (ages 3-5), follows Sophie as she explains to friend and playmate Tommy that she celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. Tommy only celebrates Christmas. I appreciated the very gentle tension as Sophie diplomatically answers questions about how and why she celebrates “both.” Sophie explains the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights in the Temple, but both children mention only the more secular aspects of Christmas (the tree, the feast), so this book works for interfaith Jewish families celebrating a secular Christmas at home, as well as families celebrating both religions. This would also be a good pick for young Christian kids curious about a cousin or friend who celebrates both, as they can identify with Tommy.

5. New this season, Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise (ages 3-8) features the most dramatic and emotionally satisfying plot of any book for interfaith children I have seen. Rachel is flying with her family to spend Hanukkah and Christmas with her father’s Christian family. Rachel is upset when she leaves behind her menorah on the airplane, but her kind Nonna (Italian for grandmother) saves the day by creating a lovely new menorah for her, out of recycled perfume bottles. The Christian cousins gather affectionately around the menorah with Rachel to help her celebrate, modeling bridge-building across the religious divide. The author weaves in some of the meanings of Hanukkah, but the references to Christmas are oblique. This book (from a publisher of books on Judaism) was clearly written for interfaith children being raised Jewish, who celebrate Christmas only with extended family. In fact, it was a recent selection for PJ Library, the free Jewish book program for children. But I recommend it for any interfaith family.

6. The other new book this season is perfect for those who celebrate both holidays, and want to begin to teach their children the underlying meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas. December’s Gift (ages 3-8) follows Clara as she helps her Bubbe to make latkes, and then helps her Grammy to make Christmas cookies. (The book includes recipes for both, and charming illustrations). Bubbe tells Clara the story of the destruction of the temple and the miracle of the Hanukkah oil. And Grammy teaches Clara how the star-shaped cookies and the star on the tree represent the star that led wise men to the birth of a king. There is no mention of Jesus by name. But for interfaith parents who want to give their interfaith children an interfaith education, this book is an excellent start.

7. Finally, I cannot resist writing about a book I have long imagined—a book that does not exist, yet. One of my very favorite authors, Patricia Polacco, is from an interfaith family, but has yet to write a book about that experience. She has written many Christmas books, and perhaps the two very best children’s books about loving friendships between Jews and Christians (Mrs. Katz and Tush, and The Trees of the Dancing Goats). A book about an interfaith family from Patricia Polacco is at the top of my holiday fantasy wish list.

 

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

 

Christmas and Hanukkah: 2014 Round-Up

Chanukiah

This year, Hanukkah ends just in time to give a day of breathing space between the eight-day celebration and the arrival of Christmas. This is how I like my December holidays: completely separate in space and time, while connected by the common threads of family togetherness, feasting, singing, and light at the winter solstice. And this year, the two holidays are just close enough that we will get to light candles for the final night of Hanukkah, and then also celebrate Christmas, with my interfaith parents and all my siblings.

It’s a busy time of year for interfaith parents, and it’s also busy for me as a source for stories on interfaith parenting. This year, I allowed a reporter to also interview my son for the first time, for a story on the blog of the PBS Newshour. This story features a Hindu and Christian family, as well as my family, as we move into a less binary interfaith landscape. They also published three of my photos, including the one of the Hanukkah menorah above. Go take a look. (Also, to catch up on the debate over use of the word hanukiyah versus “Hanukkah menorah”, search my twitter feed @beingboth).

I have an essay entitled “How Not to Spoil Your Interfaith Kids at Christmas and Hanukkah,” my debut on the Jewish parenting site Kveller.com. In this piece, I describe the efforts in our interfaith family to keep the gift-giving under control.

And in my most recent response on The Seesaw, the Jewish Daily Forward‘s interfaith families advice column, I advise a Jewish dad who is feeling uncomfortable when his interfaith kid gets to celebrate Christmas. My response, “Let it go!”

Over at Beacon Press, in case you missed it, you can read my essay on “An Interfaith Child’s Christmas and Hanukkah” on Beacon Broadside. Also, you can order books direct from the publisher through the end of the month at 20% off (with free shipping) with the code GIFT20 . Some of my favorite recent Beacon Press books in the religion/worldview category include Faithiest by Chris Stedman, Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel, A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects by S. Brent Plate, and a new gift edition of Victor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning.

To browse through the many, many, many posts I have written on Hanukkah and Christmas over the years, on this blog and on Huffington, just type Christmas Hanukkah in the search box on this blog.

And in the new year, I’m looking forward to giving a public lecture at Claremont Lincoln University, in Claremont CA, on January 10th. Let your friends and family in the LA area know that they are welcome to attend.

I am sorry to see this year, the first full year with Being Both, the book–a year filled with lovely book adventures and important conversations with so many of you about interfaith families–come to an end. So here’s to more of the same in 2015! And in the last few days of 2014, may all your latkes be warm, and may all your lights be bright, as we head into, and then out of, the darkest days of winter.

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

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

Lessons and Carols: Interfaith Community

As I head off this morning to the annual Lessons and Carols service with our interfaith community, I thought I would repost this essay from 2010…

On Sunday, our community of more than 100 interfaith families held our annual Lessons and Carols service, in anticipation of Christmas. The fifth-graders tied toy stuffed sheep and donkeys to their heads, and acted out the nativity scene. My son played djembe, my daughter sang with the choir while dandling someone’s baby on her knee. Together, we pondered the story of the the angels, the wisemen, the star.

As always, as an interfaith community, our aim is not to meld, mash-up, mix, water-down or confuse our two religions. Instead, we strive to celebrate each holiday, whether Jewish or Christian, with full respect and all the trimmings. So how and why are these celebrations different from those you would find in any church or synagogue? Often, we begin and end a celebration by reciting our interfaith responsive reading, which is not a statement of creed, but a recognition that some of us are Jews, some of us are Christians, some of us have interfaith identities, and we are all equal members of this community. For me, simply knowing that we are an interfaith community changes my perception of any event: ancient rituals, songs and prayers, shimmer with the newness of radical inclusivity.

But also, our clergy, and our members, speak from their interfaith experiences, putting each holiday into our interfaith context. For instance, this week, our rabbi spoke of what Christmas means to him as a Jew. He hears the universal message of Christmas as the existence of God in the poor, the oppressed, the excluded, the “holy other.” He sees God in the pregnant girl, the baby born into poverty, the lowly shepherds, the mysterious travellers who came bearing gifts from afar. You do not have to believe that Jesus was the only human incarnation of God to be inspired by this narrative.

For many of our members, being part of an interfaith community gives them an opportunity to connect to family traditions and history, rather than suppressing them. At our service this week, Jonathan Brown spoke of his great grandfather, who was Head Chorister in the original “Nine Lessons and Carols,” created 130 years ago in Truro, Cornwall. Jonathan explains, “The service was designed to be as inclusive as possible: non-denominational, no creeds, no ceremonies or communion.” Of course, at the time, virtually everyone in Cornwall was Christian, but the idea of expanding this tradition to include Jonathan’s Jewish wife, his interfaith son, feels somehow organic and true.

As an interfaith community, we encourage families to take children to church, to synagogue, to celebrate with extended family, to maintain their connections to ancient traditions. This week, Jonathan and his family will return to his birthplace in Cornwall, and his son will be the fifth generation to take part in the Lessons and Carols service there.

But we also know that by providing a space and time to celebrate together, as an interfaith community, we help each other through the moments of dissonance and alienation that inevitably come along with the exuberance and thrill of our pioneering cross-cultural and cross-religious relationships.

Another member of our community confessed to me this week that he had bought his wife a Christmas present for the first time, after decades of marriage. A most loving and supportive husband, as a Jew he just had not been able to transcend the bitter history of religious conflict and wrap his head around the idea of a Christmas gift. He credited our interfaith community with his shift in thinking, and his ability to finally arrive, bearing a gift from afar.

 

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

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.