Thanksgivukkah, Syncretism, and the Luxury of Interfaith Humor

Centerpiece by Bethany Karn, ButterKup Flowers
Bethany Karn, ButterKup Flowers

I have to admit to ambivalence about Thanksgivukkah. Why do I feel this way? It has something to do with the fact that, as interfaith families who celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, we spend a lot of time explaining that we don’t mix or merge holidays: we give each one specific religious meaning. I am happiest when Hanukkah and Christmas whirl to the farthest reaches of their orbital dance, at opposite ends of the winter calendar, giving each holiday the space it deserves. We don’t do Chrismukkah.

But why not merge the “secular” American holiday of Thanksgiving with a Jewish holiday when they happen to overlap? Certainly, these two holidays have a natural affinity and synergy: both celebrate religious freedom, both encourage gratitude, and both feature rich feasting. What’s not to like? And yet, I have found myself side-stepping (until now) the frenzy of menurkeys, pumpkin latkes with cranberry sauce, and Thanksgivukkah songs.

I would not be the first to note that part of the zeal for Thanksgivukkah this year is driven by commercialism, and that part of it seems to stem from a sort of sublimated or frustrated desire for the far-less-kosher Chrismukkah. And yet some of those who are reveling in the “hybridity” of Thanksgivukkah would be strongly opposed to interfaith families raising children with both family religions. The layers of complexity and irony here go deep, for such a giddy and essentially harmless holiday.

Speaking of Hanukkah and Christmas, this week, progressive Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (and no, that is not an oxymoron) wrote a fascinating column about why he actually celebrates a new product called a Menorah Tree (a chanukiah wound with greenery and lights). I spend so much time and energy distancing myself from this kind of holiday mash-up. So Rabbi Brad kind of blew my mind by writing “What religious custom isn’t at least somewhat syncretistic? Every sacred tradition belonging to every religion I know was once an innovation, and most of them have their roots in, or were borrowed from, some other community.”

True! I made exactly that point in Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. But many will hear the message more clearly (and with less resistance) coming from a traditional religious leader, than from an interfaith families activist. An Orthodox rabbi can get away with embracing a Menorah Tree, while a second-generation interfaith parent, not so much. I keep my distance.

So forgive me if the idea of turkey-stuffed donuts makes me (and, apparently, Kathie Lee Gifford) slightly queasy. We will take out our traditional brass menorah on Thanksgiving this year at sundown. It won’t be adorned with solstice greenery (we will celebrate the winter solstice on the solstice). The moment to light the candles for the second night of Hanukkah will probably arrive sometime toward the end of our Thanksgiving dinner. But I am not going to make a big deal about the overlap.

I really do not want to come off as humorless, or as the Grinch who stole Thanksgivukkah, especially since this convergence won’t come around again for an estimated 77,000 years or so. I was happy to loan one of my menorahs out to a friend–wildly talented floral designer Bethany Karn–so that she could create a Thanksgivukkah centerpiece for a local contest. I laughed with delight at her extravaganza of vintage pilgrim and turkey candles, gelt and dreidels, gourds and pheasant feathers. In fact, I am going to use it at a book launch event this week.

But I am always very, very cautious when it comes to religious humor. If you’re Jewish, you can get away with hilarious R-rated Hanukkah humor, like my friend Sean Altman (aka Jewmongous) does. (His website warns: “not recommended for children under 13 unless you’re raising them to be sailors.”) And I suppose if you’re Christian, you can do the same with Christmas. For those of us born into interfaith families, we have to be careful when we venture into religious comedy in either direction, because we may be seen as “others” rather than “insiders,” and thus lose the right to joke around with impunity.

So yes, I giggled at this off-color Thanksgivukkah horror film trailer parody. And I laughed til I cried watching Stephen Colbert’s attack on Thanksgivukkah. He can get away with this, I believe, as a Catholic, in part because of his ongoing dialogue with the (Jewish) Jon Stewart. And because, well, they are Stewart and Colbert. And I’m not. So I am just going to have to play it straight here. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Thanksgiving. Celebrate, and give thanks.

Why Interfaith Kids Love Hanukkah (Even If They Get Christmas Too)

Last night on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart was bemoaning the fact that his interfaith kids ditched Hanukkah as soon as they found out about Christmas (his wife is Catholic). I suspect this was just schtick, or perhaps he’s not trying hard enough on the Hanukkah end of things.

Interfaith parents tend to fear the commercial and emotional juggernaut that is Christmas in America. Whether they are raising their kids with both religions, or raising them as Jews with inevitable exposure to Christmas through the extended family, it is hard to believe at first that Hanukkah can, well, hold a candle to Christmas.

I know, it shouldn’t be a popularity contest. Christmas is second only to Easter in theological importance for Christians. Hanukkah, well, it’s a celebration of a military victory that occurred long after the Torah was written. So it’s probably not in the top ten Jewish holidays in terms of religious significance.

But here’s the funny thing: children love Hanukkah. Whether or not they get eight nights of presents, they love Hanukkah. Whether or not they celebrate Christmas, they love Hanukkah. I grew up celebrating both, my children grew up celebrating both, and I can tell you that you really don’t have to fear the Hanukkah versus Christmas smackdown. Here are five reasons why:

  1. Given half a chance, most children actually love a quiet moment of contemplation with the nuclear family, with the lights dimmed, and the allure of fire. That’s why our favorite memories of Christmas may be decorating the tree, not opening the presents. Hanukkah provides eight opportunities for this magical moment. Even if a couple of nights get lost to busy schedules or Hanukkah parties, most folks can pull off more than one night together gathered around the menorah.
  2. Kids love the actual lighting of the candles. They love the routine, the anticipation of one more candle each night, getting their hands on the candles and controlling the fire at an age when you otherwise probably wouldn’t let them anywhere near such a thing.
  3. Kids love latkes. They’re fried, they’re bland, they come with applesauce. What’s not to like? Whether you bleed grating your knuckles into the potatoes, or use a box-mix to make the mushy variety like I do, kids (and grownups) devour them. I don’t fry anything the rest of the year—it’s messy and fattening. But for Hanukkah, I fry, and the kids go wild when they smell the sizzling oil. It may not be that healthy, but if the dinner consists of latkes, applesauce and salad, you don’t end up overstuffed and groaning like you do after Thanksgiving or Passover. It’s a perfect weeknight meal.
  4. Kids really do appreciate savoring one gift each night, as much as they also appreciate an orgy of gifts on Christmas. Our family tradition is to hunt for the Hanukkah present, which creates huge excitement for little kids. Some nights, they know it will be a “small gift” night, maybe Silly Putty or a roll of lifesavers. It’s enough, and they still have the thrill of hunting for it.
  5. Eight nights leaves room to think about tzedakah, or charity. Early on, we declared one or more nights the nights of “giving to others” in lieu of getting gifts (in part to offset the additional gifts on Christmas). So Hanukkah also becomes an opportunity for them to feel good about giving back. If you instill this idea early on, they actually crave the good feelings that come from giving. One year, I gave each of the small cousins, who did not grow up with this “give to others night” tradition, a single dime-store plastic animal to represent the rabbit or chicken they were giving to Heifer International, to make the idea more concrete and take the sting out of “not getting a present that night.” They played for hours with those tiny animals.

So don’t be afraid that Christmas will outshine little Hanukkah. Appreciate Hanukkah for its intimacy and lack of commercialism, and your children will grow up doing the same. If you celebrate both, you can certainly get away with cutting back on the number of gifts involved with each of them, so that the toys take a back seat to the shared mystical theme of light in the darkness of the solstice.

Happy Hanukkah!

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