Making Room for Both Traditions of Christmas and Hanukkah
by Meg Smith, guest contributor
Although I was born on Christmas, I feel like I’m slightly part Hanukkah now. Each year since I remarried — an event which brought two Jewish stepchildren into my life — I have anticipated the Festival of Lights with almost as much excitement as my hybrid celebration of the Winter Solstice/Yule and Christmas.
My stepchildren are actually half-Hanukkah and half-Christmas; their mother is Jewish, their father is not. Their parents long ago agreed the children would be raised Jewish, so they are attending the several years of Hebrew school that prepare them to become a bar and bat mitzvah. Having grown up with Christian and Jewish extended families, however, they have honored their heritage from both sides by celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas from the time they were born. As each year draws to a close, they look forward to lighting Hanukkah candles as well as decorating the Christmas tree with their doting, out-of-town Presbyterian grandparents.
Since their father and I were married, they now live half-time in a home brimming with Christmas during December, including decor and symbols that honor my own Christian and Celtic pre-Christian ancestry. I love to cozy up every shelf and corner with cinnamon-scented candles, colored lights, evergreen branches, holly, ivy, mistletoe, pine cones, Santa Claus and Father Christmas figurines, little bottle brush trees, images of Victorian Christmas, a Mexican nativity scene to honor my half-Mexican son, and of course a Christmas tree. All kinds of Christmas music — from popular and New Age to Renaissance and Celtic — play in the house during the holiday season. The everyday dishes are stored away in favor of holly-trimmed plates and mugs. There is no mistaking what we’re celebrating at this address!
Not wanting my stepkids’ Jewish heritage to disappear amidst all the trappings of Christmas, my husband and I cook a batch of potato latkes (yes, this is a link to the recipe I use, served with applesauce and sour cream, yum!) and noodle kugel every year, starting with the first year we all lived in the same house. We bought a menorah so they could light candles and sing Hanukkah blessings just as they do when they are in their fully Jewish home.
I can tell they appreciate celebrating Hanukkah with the non-Hanukkah parents. I love seeing the delight on their faces when they realize there is a menorah in this house, and when they see the colorful Hanukkah platter we bought for serving latkes. I’m happy to help create a comforting atmosphere for them with familiar foods, symbols, and decor while they take the lead in song, prayer, and sometimes even dreidel games during this quiet festival. I think we’ve succeeded in letting them know their Jewishness is a welcome part of their new family and not strictly reserved for when they are with their mother.
Just about when Hanukkah is wrapping up, our blended family, which includes my teenage son, has a tradition of purchasing a Christmas tree together. We bundle up and trundle off to my stepson’s high school (also my alma mater) to buy a fundraiser tree, then stop for hot chocolate and mochas to warm our hands. We decorate the tree with Christmas rock music playing in the background and plates of cookies nearby. Everyone must put at least one ornament on the tree, an easy requirement for the kids to satisfy as each of them has their own collection, which we add to every year with a new ornament tied around their stocking. Those half-Hanukkah kids know their way around a Christmas tree, and always have a good time dressing it up! They enjoy waking up in our house on Christmas morning to stuffed stockings and gifts under the tree, a family breakfast, a lazy day enjoying their new books and games, and then a nice family dinner. It’s not a religious celebration, but one of family, love, music, light, warmth, and togetherness. And plenty of homemade food. Oh, alright — and presents!
We’re lucky our blended family gets along as well as we do, and I’m grateful that we share these very different winter holidays together. I hope that by celebrating both holidays we’re creating experiences and memories to help our Christmas and Hanukkah children honor their ancestry and be as open to diversity as their parents are. I know we will always have a menorah in our home and look forward to making delicious fried latkes every year.
I’m not as certain what will become of my stepchildrens’ Christmas ornaments when they are grown and start their own holiday traditions. Will they celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas? Or both? Something else maybe? At the very least I hope they will happily remember these two holidays in a home that made room for them both.
Meg Smith lives in Evanston, Illinois and periodically blogs at Someplace in Between.
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