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Growing up with Chrismukkah

We do both.

Yes, Christmas and Hanukkah. Trees and Menorahs. Candy canes and latkes. Come to my house in mid-December and we’ll have it all.

My mom is Catholic, my dad is Jewish and they raised my three siblings and I in both religions. Growing up, we sometimes resented the five hours each week of Hebrew School and Catholic education (CCD), but had no problem embracing our dual faith when the holidays rolled around.

Classmates over for playdates would notice the Star of David ornament hanging on our Christmas tree. What do you mean you celebrate both holidays? Does that mean you get double the gifts?

A few times I said “yes” to make them jealous. But the truth is, my parents realized double gifting was absurd after about a year. Christmas became our primary gift-giving holiday – an explosion of presents beneath the tree – while Hanukkah was about coming together as a family to honor the Jewish tradition.

Gifts aside, being a mixed faith family during the holidays meant celebrations start earlier and last longer. Occasionally, the two holidays overlapped and we’d light Hanukkah candles after Christmas dinner. Over time, unique Chrismukkah traditions emerged.

One Hanukkah when I was in high school we gathered in the kitchen to light the candles. Scrambling to find a yarmulke, the traditional head covering Jewish men wear during prayer, my dad grabbed the nearest Santa Claus hat that was sitting on the counter. We all looked at him skeptically.

“I mean, it covers my head, right?” he said, and started with the Hebrew prayers. My Dad has worn that Santa hat to light the menorah almost every year since.

Celebrating both holidays was trickier when I went away to Notre Dame, where 90% of the student body is Christian. From masses to parties to decorations in every corner of campus, Christmas at Notre Dame is wonderfully festive, so it would have been easy to embrace my Christian identity and toss away Hanukkah for a few years. But I didn’t want to give up on the Chrismukkah traditions I’d grown up with.

Freshman year, my good friend and I took a bus around South Bend, Indiana until we found the one party store that sold Hanukkah decorations. We picked up frozen hash browns from Walmart for latkes and coffee filters for makeshift yarmulkes. Finally, we persuaded an upperclassman to buy us four bottles of Manischewitz – a too-sweet kosher wine I will never drink again – and our Chrismukkah party was in business.

Manischewitz flowed freely in the dorm room adorned with “Happy Hanukkah and “Merry Christmas” banners. For a couple of students at Notre Dame, I was the first Jewish or partially Jewish person they had ever met. They were eager to learn about the Festival of Lights, the “other holiday” always mentioned around Christmas. I remember a classmate asking me in earnest, “Is it sacrilegious for me to play dreidel?”

The party was so successful we repeated it throughout college, and by senior year, everyone knew how to play dreidel.

Growing up with two faiths was at times confusing –  I questioned my religious identity and wondered if I would ever “decide”. But I’m thankful for how my parents raised us, particularly around the holidays. Watching how they embraced the other’s traditions: my mom lighting the Hanukkah candles, my dad writing Santa’s note in the wee hours of Christmas – taught me about respect and acceptance in a fundamental way.

To me, there is nothing conflicting about celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah. The holidays even share similarities – both revolve around a miracle of light, whether from the guiding Star of Bethlehem or the oil in the Jerusalem Temple that burned for eight nights.

And of course, both are about spending time with loved ones.

Instead of relying on generic holiday greetings that are careful not to “offend,” I believe everyone should make an effort to learn about and celebrate their neighbors’ customs. Because as my parents taught me, joining in others’ traditions doesn’t mean abandoning your own.

“The more the merrier” – isn’t that what the holidays are about?

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8 thoughts on “Growing up with Chrismukkah

  1. Dear Sara I so enjoyed your latest essay. The image of your father in his Santa hat lighting Hanukkah was priceless I’m forwarding it to my French teacher who is raising her three children in both faiths like youn were. Happy holidays Vicki

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    1. Thank you Vicki! I’m endlessly amused by my Dad lighting the candles and saying Hebrew prayers in a Santa Hat, especially because he does so with a serious face! Happy holidays to you too 🙂

  2. The image of your father in his Santa hat lighting Hanukkah candles priceless. This was wonderful ( as always)
    Vicki S ( msnbc)

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