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Sharing Faith: Celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah

 

“The ritual of lighting is an invitation to bring more light into our lives. And to emanate a nice, warm glow during the darkest time of the year.”

 

 

I grew up decidedly Christian in an interfaith family. My paternal grandparents, and all my various aunts and uncles, were Jewish; but my father converted, and was received into the Episcopal church a few months before he died, when I was in grade school. My mother’s tiny family worshiped at the church of beauty: any place with a good organ or a decent stained glass, or even a walk in the woods, was a place to find God.

It wasn’t hard to be Christian or Jewish (or neither) in the ’80s outside Boston. But it was a challenge to “be both.” I’ve raised my own family entirely within the Christian tradition, acknowledging the high holy days and various feasts of Judaism around the table, but not at temple. As a parent and an educator, it has been a joy in recent years to discover interfaith communities and educational resources. As the first of the eight nights of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve this year, it seemed like a good time to share some of these resources.

Sharing Faith by Finding Meaning
If you don’t know anything about Hanukkah, the Jewish educators at Bim Bam have a great new video What Is Hanukkah? as well as videos and cheat sheets for candle lighting and blessings. Created for an “unschooled” Jewish audience, Bim Bam’s videos are also good for non-Jews interested in learning more about the faith. The 4-minute video connects the story of the Maccabees fighting for and restoring the Jewish temple with current practices, specifically tying together “the light that lasted beyond expectation [and] the few who succeeded against the mighty” as well as celebrating the freedom to worship.

As a Christian looking for ways to connect the two winter celebrations, I particularly like the idea of raising up Hanukkah’s meaning of “dedication.” How can we rededicate ourselves, as the Maccabees dedicated themselves to the cause of freeing their people to worship, and as the temple was rededicated with the miraculous oil? This seems in keeping with the Incarnation, a visual dedication of God’s love for humankind.

Sharing Faith with Books
Picture books help us share our faith through images, especially when we know what we do but don’t have the words to share why we do it. Picture books can engage readers and prompt questions and conversations. Journalist and interfaith educator Susan Katz Miller reviewed several children’s books on celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas. She points out that most books focus on the signs and symbols of the holidays and not any deeper religious meaning. Several books model bridging the two holidays and a few even include recipes! You can read her reviews here.

Sharing Faith with Food
Hanukkah memorializes a great miracle, the miracle of oil. After the Maccabees cleansed the temple of the pagan gods, the temple needed to be rededicated. Rededication required oil that had been blessed, and that oil took time to prepare. Unfortunately, there was only one day’s worth of oil to be found. The miracle is that the sacred oil lasted! Those eight days are symbolized with the candles of the menorah. The oil is symbolized with food fried in oil.

Maybe because I grew up in the land of Dunkin’ Donuts, I’ve never made sufganiyot, the Israeli jelly-filled doughnuts. I have made many many latkes, crispy potato pancakes served with applesauce and sour cream. Latkes aren’t hard to make, although they make a mess, and are a fun (and delicious!) way to share the tradition. The best pancakes are made with russet potatoes and a little bit of onion grated by hand and eaten hot from the oil. Tips and techniques can be found here.

Sharing Faith with Actions
Christmas and Hanukkah are celebrations of light in the darkness, both physical and metaphorical, symbolized by stars, lights, and candles. Both are celebrated with families and friends, almost always sharing special food. Simply noting the similarities is a good way to recognize our need for the community God provides. Some of our most meaningful moments are those quiet ones spent in the dark beneath the decorated tree or around the candles of the menorah. At this hectic time of year, carving out time for those moments is well worth it! For more ideas on celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas, Katz Miller offers eight suggestions here.

Unlike the birth of Christ, Hanukkah is not a major religious holiday. Christians believe that the baby in the manger is Emmanuel (God with us) Jesus (he saves) and through that baby God will redeem the world. My Jewish family’s belief is that redemption comes through tiikkun olam – study, ritual, and acts of kindness.

Hanukkah lends itself to extending, for a full week, the shared ideals of spreading light and charity – tzedakah. The latter is an attribute we sometimes neglect in our race to the tree. May we all increase in our good deeds, one flame at a time, and together create light in the world.

 


Charlotte Hand Greeson shares her passion for formation as a manager, editor, and writer for Building Faith. She currently lives in California with her husband and teenage son; her daughter lives in Philadelphia. They will be making and eating latkes by the light of the Christmas tree.

Photo credit to “Third Night” Rebecca Seigel, creative commons license.

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