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With Christmas Eve falling on the first day of Hanukkah, families negotiate cultural divides

Families negotiate time, inlaws, Christmas trees

As a girl growing up in Pikesville, Risa Huber loved Hanukkah for the same reasons many Jewish children do: It meant eight days of presents and candle-lighting and the coming of winter break.

She knew far less about Christmas. But her parents made sure to expose her to the secular fun of the Christian holiday.

"We'd drive to non-Jewish neighborhoods and ooh and ahh at the light displays," the Reisterstown physician recalls. "It seemed so different, but it was always so beautiful."

This weekend, she won't have to choose between the two traditions.

Hanukkah begins this year on Christmas Eve, for only the third time since 1872, and the first time since 1978. And the Hubers are among the growing number of American families blending faith traditions.

Huber's husband, Scott, is Catholic. They're raising their two children, Sydney, 14, and Caitlin, 12, Jewish.

At sunset Saturday, they plan to light the first of the eight candles of the menorah. On Sunday, they'll open presents under a Christmas tree.

"For us, it's all about being a family, no matter what holiday it is," Risa says.

Nearly 40 percent of Americans who have married since 2010 have a spouse from a different religious background, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center. That's twice the number recorded in 1960.

The trend is more pronounced among Jews and Christians: The survey found that 58 percent of Jewish Americans — including 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews — marry outside the faith today. That's a huge change since 1970, when the total number was less than 20 percent.

Beth Land Hecht, a licensed social worker who conducts workshops on interfaith issues through the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, says all interfaith couples who take their beliefs seriously face challenges.

They include a need to choose a religious identity for the family, respect each other's traditions, and address any sense of loss their parents might feel.

And now comes "the December dilemma" — the time-tested passel of questions as to how best to observe contrasting traditions that take place, at most, within weeks of each other.

Some of the big ones, Hecht says, include whether to have a Christmas tree, how and when to celebrate which holiday and with which in-laws, how many and what sorts of presents to allow, and — potentially — how to address such theologically thorny issues as the divinity of Jesus.

"This time of year provides opportunities for increased understanding and mutual respect, and we always emphasize that," says Hecht. "But this can definitely be a nerve-racking season."

Some dissonance is probably unavoidable, given holidays that in many ways could hardly be more different.

Christmas, one of the two major holidays on the Christian calendar, marks what Christians believe was the virgin birth of Jesus, the son of God.

Hanukkah, a minor holiday in Judaism, commemorates the victory over the Syrian-Greek army by the Maccabees, a band of Jewish rebels, followed by the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jews see the hand of God in that victory. Although the Maccabees could find only enough oil to light the temple menorah for one day, according to tradition the flame burned for eight, symbolizing the unquenchability of the Jewish spirit.

The Hanukkah story is recorded in the First and Second Books of Maccabees, which are included in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bibles. They do not appear in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, which was compiled before the Maccabees' victory.

The holidays' traditions differ. Many Christians attend Christmas Eve or Christmas Day church services. Many more hang wreaths, tinsel and decorative lights, enjoy any of hundreds of familiar songs, trade tales of Santa Claus and open multiple gifts on a single day.

Most Jews celebrate Hanukkah at home, not in the synagogue, as they do the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

As families light menorah candles, they traditionally recite the prayer for that day, in Hebrew or in English. Kids generally get one small gift each day.

For children in interfaith families, that can be a blessing: a chance of nine days' worth of presents.

"Ask our kids," jokes Amanda Fries of Ellicott City, a practicing Jew whose husband, Doug, is a lifelong Catholic. "They have it all, the spoiled little buggers."

The Frieses are raising their sons Aiden, 11, and Connor, 8, Jewish. But in a nod to Doug's background, and the broader culture, they observe elements of both holidays.

They put up and elaborately decorate a tree, and they also light the daily candles and dig into traditional latkes and doughnuts, foods cooked in oil to commemorate the temple miracle.

Amanda says her mother-in-law loves supplying Jewish items such as dreidels and "Happy Hanukkah" signs "to go along with our Christmas tchotchkes," and the Yuletide stockings on the family mantel are illuminated by lights that showcase the Star of David.

"I have my beliefs, and my husband has his, and we're never going to agree on those," she says. "But there's no reason you can't trust and respect each other's faiths."

For some families, blending traditions takes more negotiation.

When Randy Bowers, a Presbyterian, began dating his Jewish future wife, Allison, they had plenty to talk about.

Bowers says she made it clear early there were certain things she'd never accept — including a Christmas tree in the house.

"She was adamant about that, and it was a concern for me," he says. "Having a tree was such a wonderful part of my childhood. It's one of those things you grow up wanting to share with your own kids."

Hecht says it's not uncommon for some Jews to resist the tree, especially if they didn't grow up around the tradition.

Some of the people with whom she works have told her that's partly because an evergreen radiates the idea of eternal life — reflecting the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead — and can feel like the very symbol of the power and omnipresence of the majority culture.

Christians make up three-quarters of the U.S. population. Jews amount to 2.2 percent.

"As a minority, Jewish people tend to feel left out this time of year," Hecht says. "You can't go into a store or turn on the TV without being reminded.

"For some Jews, [having a tree] can make them feel like a minority within their own family."

For the Bowerses, attitudes began to soften when they found their parents unexpectedly fascinated by each other's faiths. The couple married and had children; a hybrid approach has developed over time.

They have a tree these days, though only Randy and the kids decorate it. They avoid "religiously intense" displays, such as Nativity scenes, but adorn their Lutherville home with wreaths and lights. They visit her parents during Hanukkah, his on Christmas.

And Randy takes his older daughter, Jessica, 12, with him to Christmas Eve services, but only because she finds it interesting.

"She has the Jewish view of who Jesus is, and sees the whole question with a sense of humor," he says. "That's fine with me. We take these holidays for what they are. For our kids, it's fun."

Some familiar with both holidays see similarities. Each is thought to mark an act of God that brought light into darkness, inspiring hope and, it is hoped, a desire to share one's blessings.

Risa Huber recalls a great uncle who dressed as Santa during Hanukkah — "he glued cotton balls to his face, wore a T-shirt that said 'Santa' in Hebrew, and handed out presents," she says — but more than that, she remembers a family tradition started by her parents, Charles and Ellen Weiner: donation night.

On one night during Hanukkah, the family decided on a charity to support rather than giving gifts. The Hubers have continued the practice with their children.

Sydney donated her $100 last year to the Humane Society. Caitlin sent $50 each to the local police precinct and fire station. Each wrote letters explaining her thinking.

"We truly enjoy tying in the giving aspect of both holidays," Risa says.

They plan to have donation night on Christmas Eve after lighting the menorah.

The Jewish Volunteer Connection, a program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, will do much the same Saturday evening and Sunday with its 11th Mitzvah Day. Volunteers will put together care packages for the poor and decorate cards for members of the military.

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore hosts the event at its Park Heights and Owings Mills locations. Lara Nicolson is the director of interfaith engagement for the organization.

A Jew who's married to an Episcopalian, Nicolson says Mitzvah Day "is about making a difference."

The Bowerses haven't decorated this year, but not for lack of interest. They embarked Friday on a four-day cruise.

Randy says the cruise line they've chosen is known for its elaborate Christmas celebrations, but he's not sure what, if any, provisions they make for Hanukkah.

Either way, they're coming prepared.

"We're bringing our menorah," he says.

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