A week after Thanksgiving, USA Today reported that the Christmas Season had finally arrived — at least in Washington — when President Obama continued a White House tradition that dates back to Calvin Coolidge, with the lighting of the National Christmas tree.
This was a replacement tree for the majestic Colorado blue spruce that had to be removed following a fierce windstorm last winter. A little smaller than the last one, the President noted, but it was still a pretty good looking tree, which he said would be filled with spirit and, not incidentally, strung with energy efficient lights.
This federal ritual went off without a hitch and with no negative publicity in an election year when already the slightest misspeak or misstep triggers a righteous (and frequently self-righteous) howl in cyberspace.
Not so a few days later, December 9th to be exact, when another article, this time in a New York City tabloid with the dateline Washington Oy vey!, with its usual not-so-objective approach to news coverage, noted that just days after rival candidate Rick Perry had accused him of fighting a war on religion, President Obama had looked more like a schlemiel, fighting a war on decorum, when the White House lit all the candles on the menorah at its official Hanukkah party.
One rabbi, when asked, weighed in by affirming that you’re not supposed to — the first night of Hanukkah you (only) light one.
Even worse though, this ritual candle lighting occurred almost two weeks too early. This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown Tuesday, only a few days before Christmas, when, as the reporter snarked, Obama will be in Hawaii on a scheduled family vacation. And then the Fox circuits lit up like a neon Menorah in Las Vegas.
This relatively unimportant but well known eight-day Jewish festival can begin as early as late November, but ordinarily sometime in December, from earlier in the month, to other years when it smacks right up again the major Christian holy day and secular holiday period of Christmas, thus causing what has come to be called the December challenge for Jews and Christians alike, especially those who are part of an interfaith relationship, either by birth or partnership, or extended family. Let alone merchandisers, advertisers, and elected officials.
How do we appropriately acknowledge these two holidays? Publicly and privately honor and/or observe them? How can they coexist without being homogenized into a marketing melting pot? Or can they? Can we really all be doubly blessed? Or, as one writer noted, must there be a line drawn, so to speak, in the spiritual snow?
I will speak initially this morning from the perspective of a minority religion and culture, that of the Jewish people, but not exclusively. And in describing their beliefs and experiences, I would ask you to remember that there are holidays and holy days celebrated and revered by other religions and cultures this month, with some of the same challenges and opportunities: Ashura for Muslims, Bodhi Day or Buddha’s birthday, the Winter Solstice for pagans, and Kwanzaa in the African-American community. What might this say to us about their status as well?
One rabbi tells us that for the vast majority of Americans, December 25 is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but for Jews, he says, it is a time to consider ones relationship to the wider society. Some Jews have chosen to adopt the Yuletide festivities, some have emphatically rejected the rituals and symbols of Christmas. Still others have sought ways to meld Christmas and Hanukkah.
Christmas has in effect become a prism through which Jews can view how living in this land of freedom has shaped their religion, culture, and identity says Rabbi Joshua Plaut in a piece from My Jewish Learning, a great online resource. He shares with us a little history: before coming to this country, for centuries the Jewish people living in Eastern Europe, places like Poland and Hungary, feared Christmastime.
At any other time, pious Jews would be in studying in schul, but not on Christmas. Wary of being attacked in the street on their way to and from their synagogues, they took refuge in their homes, playing cards or chess with their families.
We are told that the story was different in Western Europe, where, for the Jewish elite, holiday symbols, such as the Christmas tree, signified secular inclusion in society. So we have photos of affluent German Jewish people posing for portraits with their extended families in front of elaborately decorated firs. Others celebrated Christmas with a roast goose or hare, and a big distribution of presents for servants, relatives, and friends, and played carols on the piano, including Silent Night, Holy Night.These celebrations, one Jewish historian says, reflected the view that Christmas was a German National Festival that Jews joined in, not as Jews but as Germans, and co-celebrated with other exclusively Jewish holiday events, including the annual Hanukkah Maccabee ball for singles in Berlin, with its modern counterpart, the Matzo Ball, in North America.
Jews coming to America anytime after the 1870s would have found a Christmas that had changed from a private religious observance, as was the want of the Puritans who first arrived here, to a secular national holiday — thanks in no small part to the role of our 19th century Unitarian forebears in introducing the decorated tree and gift-giving as enlightened European imports.
In response, Jewish families in some communities from Boston to New Orleans staged their own celebrations on Christmas Eve, as they hung wreaths on their doors and stockings on the fireplace. Even Hanukkah began to be dressed in Christmas garb, with garlands and evergreen boughs, and Hanukkah trees (not bushes) brilliantly illuminated with wax candles, and the singing of Hanukkah hymns by Sabbath-school children.
Perhaps the most widely appropriate Christmas custom among Jews in America was gift-giving, as the 1931 how-to classic What Every Jewish Woman Should Know, advised:
It is a time-hallowed Jewish custom to distribute gifts in honor of the Hanukkah festival. If ever lavishness in gifts is appropriate, it is on Hanukkah. Jewish children should be showered with gifts, Hanukkah gifts, as perhaps a primitive but most effective means of making them immune against the envy of Christian children and their Christmas.
What were the consequences for Jews who embraced Christmas traditions, the rabbi asks? Starting in the 1950s, American Jewish sociologists conducted a number of studies which revealed fairly consistently that in the second generation of Jewish immigrants, parents often agreed that a Jewish child might need a Christmas tree to “hyphenate the contradiction between his or her Americanism and his or her ethnicity.”
Which is where my childhood comes in, with parents who had essentially rejected religious Judaism and joined a Humanist Unitarian fellowship, who saw themselves exclusively as secular Americans, who chose to live in majority Christian neighborhoods, who put up a tree, invited Santa down the chimney with piles of gifts, and loved to drive us around town enjoying the outdoor Christmas lights. Where there was never a Menorah or a driedal or chocolate gelt (or coins) to be found. Where my father lustily sang Good King Wensleslus, the only song he seemed to know, and not satisfied with sticking with the secular, acceptable, commercial Christmas songs penned by Jews — White Christmas, Silver Bells, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Winter Wonderland, and many, many more, I tried out for the alto part in an O Holy Night duet in my school chorus.
Then there was the third generation of Jewish transplants, who decided that they did not need to and would not adopt the religious symbols of another group in order to acculturate, giving up the tree to such an extent that it was found that 82 percent of these families had never displayed a tree, instead choosing to elevate Hanukkah, inventing their own holiday tradition, as one commentator said, through a Christmas mirror.
Largely reinvented and greatly elevated, picked up, and sometimes exploited by the American culture at large, which despite some grumblings about stealing Christmas, even here in the deeply Christian South came to acknowledge this other holiday was happening, with full-page supermarket ads for kosher wine and egg noodles, oil to make potato latkes, Menorah candles, and traditional jelly ring.
And now the fourth and fifth generations of Jews in this country, and the reality of Jewish-Christian intermarriage, exponentially increasing in the 1970s, until now almost 50 percent choosing non-Jewish partners.
Bringing some angst (a lot of angst, actually) and the need to figure out how to live together in this new reality, a new reality that with its large numbers, an estimated 2.5 million families, has attracted both marketing attention and faith community response, sometimes of rejection, at others serious intention in embracing.
Interfaith life partners and families like some among us here. People who come from different religious and cultural traditions, facing the joys — the blessings — and the challenges of creating intimacy across these potential boundaries, with differences in belief and practice that may not be a big issue at the beginning of the relationship, but at some point most interfaith couples, we have learned, must wrestle with the issue of family religious identity, especially as the family expands to include children.
This month of December, as Mary Rosenbaum has written in Dovetail, a newsletter by and for Jewish/Christian families, is particularly ripe for conversation and sometimes fraught with pain, past and present.
The perennial December dilemma, “to tree or not to tree,” is only the tip of the iceberg, she notes. It’s the part underwater, the unshapen fears and assumptions, that can sink the family ship. For interfaith families, the holidays can be a particularly divisive time.
Listen to some of the stories and some of the wrestling:
One longtime member tells us that to begin with she has always loved Christmas, one of her favorite holidays, starting with the four Advent Sundays, the Christmas Eve dinner, lighting the tree for the first time with candles, singing, and the gift exchange. The first time she and her son and her Jewish husband celebrated together it was, she admits, with a lot of fights. Her new husband resisted the heck, she recalls, out of anything Christmassy. Since she had celebrated his Jewish holidays, she expected him to do the same.
No so, she found, and as she came to understand later, he thought on some level God was punishing him for not living up to the Jewish traditions.
After some years passed, she found he had relented, coming to peace and being comfortable together.
Her husband says he has realized that he does not have to believe in other people’s holy days in order for him to enjoy the festivities, the food, the joy, most of the music, the decorations and lights, even while he assures us he’ll still take a potato latke, matzo ball soup, a kosher corned beef/pastrami sandwich, or a Dr. Brown’s cream soda over any ham any day!
Another UUCA interfaith family story:
Another member said that when she married her culturally Christian husband, she let him know that Hanukkah was not a big deal, really, and while the holiday menorah was enchanting to her as a child, it really paled in comparison with the colored bulbs and tinsel, with gobs of brightly wrapped and big-bowed presents under the tree. Her childhood experience of Christmas had certainly been mixed, with all those days and days of singing Christmas carols in school, only mouthing the word Jesus, and not singing it, because she had heard some folks believed that the Jews had killed Jesus, followed by cookies in the shape of angels and candy canes.
As non-theistic adults, celebrating either holiday became a matter of relative indifference for them, it seems, or too much work, until their daughter Cyndee came into their lives at age five, when they were 50 and 55, and since their child had celebrated Christmas as far back as she could remember, that tradition would continue for her — with twinkling lights and popcorn strands — and Hanukkah as well — with a series of cat menorahs that they light and recite the Hebrew prayers, so as atheists they don’t have to say “Oh Lord our God,” in English anyway.
And some thoughts from a Christian congregant in her first year here, whose Jewish husband does not come with her and their two daughters to services. At home, they celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, and she says while her husband is not the biggest fan of Christmas and he still does not participate in the tree decorating, he will grudgingly say that the tree smells nice (after 13 years), loves seeing their girls on Christmas morning, and how they are filled with joy and wonder after Santa’s arrival.
Inside the walls of our UU congregations, and others, both Christian and Jewish, who welcome and even expansively outreach to interfaith families, we can find these stories of struggle, accommodation, and the intertwining of holiday traditions. And outside our walls, there are a number of resources on how to navigate these worlds more smoothly. It can be found in the upswing of interfaith holiday greeting cards, produced by companies like Mixed Blessings, some sentimental, some humorous, non-explicitly religious.
No baby in the manger scenes or action figures of the Macabees, rather the two holidays’ more secular qualities: Santa Claus and dreidels, cookies and latkes. Cards with text like “Whether it’s one merry day or candle-lit eight, it’s holiday time we celebrate.”
It can also be seen in books for children and their parents in interfaith families — straightforward books like My Daddy is Jewish and My Mommy is Christian, written by a Christian woman with a husband raised in the Jewish faith, focused on parallel holiday food and fun and gifts. And Blintzes for Blitzen, wherein one of Santa’s reindeer veers off track and ends up visiting a Jewish family Christmas Eve.
There’s the newest, My Two Holidays, that is more nuanced in its characterization of a child who is embarrassed by the fact that in his school all the other children observe either Christmas or Hanukkah, not both. I wish, he tells his mother, we just celebrated one — it’s weird to have two.
Not weird at all, says Ron Gompertz, author of Chrismukkah, a book that proposes that the next step in the evolution of Christmas and Hanukkah, for what he calls mishmash interfaith families like his own, in this increasingly mishmash interfaith country, is what he terms a hybrid celebration that merges the two.
He admits that Chrismukkah is pretend, that it doesn’t exist, it’s made up, wishful thinking. He notes that it won’t earn extra days off from school or work, won’t bring you spiritual enlightenment, or get you right with God, or win the approval of many priests or rabbis, or many parents or grandparents.
He explains that Chrismukkah, which begins on the first night of Hanukkah and continues through Christmas Day or the last night of Hanukkah, whichever comes first, is a first rate celebration of diversity, a global gumbo of cherished secular traditions. It’s the good stuff we all enjoy no matter what our religion: sleigh bells, eggnog, snowmen, twinkling lights, flickering candles, exchanging gifts with friends and families. It’s decorating the tree, he imagines, with bagels and candy canes.
Like many, if not most, interfaith couples, he maintains, neither he nor his wife have any interest in converting to each other’s faith, in fact, they are not religious, rather both proud of their cultural heritage. At the same time, he says, they are curious to learn about, and happy to help each other celebrate, their respective traditions and customs and raise children who grow up informed, tolerant, and balanced.
Which would be a good thing, but is a secular mishmash holiday really going to help us with the more complex and thornier holy day aspects as well?
Our congregant whose husband chooses not to come here and who is reluctant even to help with the Christmas decorations had the opportunity this year, after putting on a recording of religious Christmas music sung by Joan Baez, to explain to her girls that Christmas for traditional Christians is the celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus or Christ, and that Christians believe that Christ is God. Then she explained that Jews, like their Daddy, do not believe in Christ and usually don’t celebrate Christmas, but that their father does because she does. She said that when they grow up they could explore Christianity or Judaism and choose for themselves, or they could remain UU. They both said they wanted to stay UU — which pleased her very much.
Our December Dilemma, I would say, is that while we do the holiday piece well in a respectful Christian and Jewish or even Chrismukkah kind of way, we need to be more intentional,more thoughtful about the holy day part, not just for our explicitly interfaith families, but for all of us. If these are indeed source traditions — and not an exercise in comparative religion — what exactly does it mean to be observing these holidays as UUs, when it comes to sorting out the religious assumptions behind Hanukkah and Christmas — the first, some say, is actually a celebration of a Jewish civil war during the Hellenistic period, the victory of forces of Orthodoxy against those who would be more culturally open. What can we take away and what do we need to reject?
And the second, a celebration of the birth of God in the form of a Savior and Messiah, when our faith movement stems directly from a radically liberal Christian tradition that two centuries or more ago rejected the core notions of Jesus as divine, original sin, and salvation through him. What fits and what doesn’t?
For some of us, the December Jewish and Christian holidays, and the way we approach them, has actually become a point of frustration and contention for our children who were raised UU. The daughter of one of our members, now married into a Christian family, has told her parents she would rather spend Thanksgiving with her UU parents and Christmas with her husband’s, with the implicit message that it is clearer what is being celebrated.
My own adult children, raised UU but tilting Jewish, while having finally sorted out what kinds of food we will eat as a family together — a Christian Christmas Eve dinner and then Chinese on Christmas Day, Jewish-style — have been dismayed at times at what happens within UU congregations during these holidays, when we indeed have, on occasion, insisted on lighting the Menorah early, or the candles all at once, for the convenience of our worship schedule.
And confused by, if not uncomfortable with, the words of traditional Christian carols and Christmas gospel readings that don’t fit with our basic, bottom-line theology. Not just that there’s God language, but what and who is being worshiped?
Where are we in all of this? They want to know.
As one of our British Unitarians admits, Christmas may be the one time that our Unitarian theology is frankly compromised, taking second place to convention, and for once we can be found singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the Newborn King” or “O Come Let us Adore Him, Christ the Lord.” We find ourselves in this season choosing the familiar, harking back to a sense of holiday and holy day that is, for some of us, immensely comforting, and filled with joy.
I am not expecting a full-throttle conversation about what it means to be interfaith in a faithful and authentic way between now and New Years. We’ve too much preparation and celebrating to do.
But how about meeting back here for Christmas and Hanukkah, say sometime in July?