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.

8 Ways to a Peaceful December in Interfaith Families

My little sister and I, in our interfaith family in 1964.

We have reached (finally!) the last month of the longest year I can remember, 2020. And December means that many interfaith families are about to join in the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas, whether or not they feel like dancing. This year, the eight nights of Hanukkah start on December 10th, midway between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Personally, I prefer these years when Hanukkah begins and ends before Christmas, so that each holiday gets separate celebration, and there’s even a moment to pause between them.

Whether you celebrate one of those holidays, or both, or neither, all of us need to cultivate empathy for our partners and family members in December, while honoring our own needs, and being mindful of how this season can trigger both joy and sadness, especially in a year of pandemic. We are also becoming more aware that “interfaith family” doesn’t always mean Jewish and Christian. The fastest-growing “interfaith” demographic, according to Pew Research, is Christian and “religious none” (a catch-all for atheists, secular humanists, agnostics, the spiritual-but-not-religious, and others who couldn’t find a better box to check). And an increasing number of interfaith families include members who are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, celebrate indigenous religions, or reclaim African diasporic traditions including vodun, Santeria, or candomblé. Our interfaith families are becoming more richly complex.

Last year, I created a new resource, The Interfaith Family Journal, to help any and every family figure out how to honor diverse religious or spiritual or cultural roots, and formative childhood experiences, while claiming and creating a plan for December (and every other month) that works for your family. The Journal traces a five-week process of writing prompts, discussion topics, and creative activities. The result is a unique resource for therapists, clergy, and families. Here, I distill from the Journal eight ways to plan for a deeper, more mindful, and peaceful season:

1. REFLECT

Ask yourself about how you experienced December as a child. What did you celebrate? How did you feel about Christmas music, decorations, movies, in American popular culture? Were you aware of being part of the religious majority or minority? How have those feelings changed over time?

2. DISCERN

Ask yourself which of your childhood winter holiday rituals you want to continue in adulthood, or take on in the future? What traditions do you want to transmit to your children? Is this because they have religious meaning, spiritual meaning, and/or cultural meaning for you?

3. INQUIRE

Ask your partner(s) or other intimate family members or co-parents how they felt during December as children. Do you understand how your childhood experiences overlap, or diverge? What are the differences? What are the synergies?

4. EMPATHIZE

Ask your partner which public expressions of the season–in public town displays, on the radio, on TV–might make them feel joyful, nostalgic, sad, or alienated, this year. Do you understand why? How has this changed for them, over time? Note that secular or cultural does not necessarily mean less important than religious or spiritual!

5. SENSE

No matter what religious (or non-religious) affiliation(s) or identity you have chosen for your family or children, are there multi-sensory December experiences that you would like to retrieve, or pass down, or take on? Music? Recipes? Crafts? Is your partner okay with tasting, smelling, hearing these with you?

6. PLAN

The number of celebrations can feel overwhelming in December, especially for interfaith families. Make a plan! Which holidays this month will you spend with which extended family members (and when)? Which will you spend with friends? And which will you spend with just your partner(s) and/or kids? With the pandemic surging, balance celebrations you can do at home with zoom call celebrations with extended family. This is a good year to really focus on home-based traditions with your partner(s) and/or children! Make sure that your partner feels comfortable with the plan.

7. GIVE

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah as a family, December can be an inspiring time to think about helping your community and to prepare for New Year’s resolutions. Especially after the horrific 2020 we have all just experienced, community service can help to keep the midwinter blues at bay. Talk to your family members about starting a tradition of December giving, or December action, to help to heal your community or the world.

8. SNUGGLE

No matter which traditions you celebrate, the scientific reality is that this is the darkest and coldest time of year in the northern hemisphere. It is probably not a coincidence that near the midwinter solstice, we try to brighten our world with the Yule hearth, Christmas lights, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa candles, or firecrackers for the Chinese Lunar New Year. So be gentle with yourself, and with your family members, as we move through the darkest days of this most difficult of years, until we tilt again towards the sun.

Note: I wrote an earlier version of this piece last year for Psych Bytes, a publication that subsequently folded in the pandemic.

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.

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.

Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Welcome Yule! Interfaith Families Doing the Most

This time of year, interfaith families make our annual appearance in the media. The world wants to know: How do we do it all? Are we confused? Are we superficial? Are we exhausted? For readers of this blog, my current column at Huffington Post, about why we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, may seem rather obvious, but it is still stirring up a snowball fight of comments, both from people who insist we cannot do what we are doing, and people who appreciate our approach. Join the fray!

Meanwhile, here’s a series of small moments from the interfaith holiday season in our family.

Advent. I asked the kids (both now officially bigger than me, at ages 17 and 14) if they wanted an Advent calendar. They said yes. I bought the ubiquitous chocolate-filled cardboard calendar, at a suspiciously cheap price of $5. I checked that it was “made in Canada” and not in China. Nevertheless, the chocolate was so crummy that my son ran outside to spit it in the driveway.  Advent Fail. On the other hand, I have been touched by some of the Advent offerings posted on facebook by my friends, including glorious music by the Mediaeval Baebes, and a frenetic and surreal liturgical dance by Steven Colbert, which I find somehow deeply spiritual, perhaps because I know that in spite of his hilarious cynicism, he is an ardent Catholic and Sunday School teacher. Advent win.

Hanukkah. We already shopped, as a family, at an Alternative Gift Fair this year, and identified charities to fund for various nights of Hanukkah. We gave each of our two teenagers $50 to spend, and they picked out delivery of a bicycle through Bikes for the World, dental checkups for 10 Mayan children in Guatemala, one week of fresh vegetables for a local family from our local farmer’s market, and socks and underwear for our local soup kitchen.

A Sprinkling of Christmas, and Hanukkah. I made Christmas and Hanukkah cookies with a fabulous group of women friends. I try not to mix the holidays together, and I am not the least bit comfortable with the star-of-David tree-topper being marketed this year, but I think it’s kosher to let Hanukkah and Christmas cookies co-exist on a counter-top for a few seconds before they are devoured.

Christmas, with a Little Hanukkah. We trimmed our tree this week. My husband wrapped our porch with lights, and then the kids had their trip down memory lane unwrapping the ornaments. Usually, we listen to Christmas classics while tree-trimming, but because we are all still smitten with the Pink Martini holiday album from last year, we allowed a tiny bit of Christmas/Hanukkah crossover to occur when their irresistible version of Flory Jagoda’s Sephardic Hanukkah song “Ocho Candelikas” (with guest vocals by NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro) came on.

Welcome Yule! We heard a rousing live version of Ocho Candelikas this week, at the Christmas Revels, believe it or not. Every year, the Revels weave together some of the pagan and Celtic influences on Christmas. This year’s Revels was a brave departure, as it was set in the “golden age of Al-Andalus,” on the Iberian Peninsula in the medieval period when Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures co-existed and recombined. We have been cautioned by academics, recently, not to over-romanticize this period, and the program at the show carefully pointed out that the “level of tolerance varied significantly by time and place.” Nevertheless, after years of Christmas Revels set in different historical periods and geographic settings, it was gratifying to see Judaism, and Islam, represented on the stage. And I see no reason not to be inspired in this season by the vision, however ethereal and ephemeral, of a time and place for religious harmony.

 

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 (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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