Celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas during the Holiday Season - It’s not all about the Presents!


         When I tell people that I celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, 90% of the time the response is “You are so lucky! You must get so many presents!” and although that might be true for some, the message behind Hanukkah, to me, is one of gratitude and of light in darkness and goes beyond any of the gifts received during the celebration.


For some background, one side of my dad’s family are Ashkenazi Russian Jews, my dad’s grandmother and grandfather were both Jewish and celebrated Hanukkah every year. My dad’s father was Jewish, however my dad’s mother, my Nana, who came from the other side of the family was an atheist converting to Judaism when my dad was young. My dad identifies as a secular Jew although he takes part in both Jewish traditions and holidays to this day, even though he doesn’t adhere to the religion as closely as his non-secular Jewish ancestors. When he had children, he decided to continue to celebrate Hanukkah as he had done growing up, in addition to celebrating Christmas, because my mother was raised Christian in her Roman Catholic family and celebrated Christmas every year.


The challenge of celebrating both is this idea of a lack of a deep religious connection or identity to one or the other. I would have Jewish friends in school who would ask me “which side of your family is Jewish?” when I would say my dad’s side, I would get the response, “So you aren’t really Jewish then?” This was such a difficult response to understand because to me, I was Jewish - half of my family was Jewish, I celebrated Hanukkah with them and/or my dad every year, and I knew the stories and prayers said by heart. As I’ve grown older, I am careful not to identify myself as Jewish, but state that I celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas due to the fact that half my family is Jewish while the other is Catholic.


When I learned the story growing up, it was out of an illustrated children’s book and told the story of the Maccabees. The simplified version (and what I remember from memory) is that this group refused to be oppressed by the current King and fought for their right to practice Judaism. After successfully driving the King’s forces out of Jerusalem, the Maccabees cleaned up the Temple and lit an oil burning lamp. They only had enough oil to last a day, but miraculously, the oil burned for eight days and eight nights, which is why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days. As we celebrated year and year, this story was meant to remind us to be grateful for the Maccabees who fought for Judaism and that no matter what, there is always light in the darkness.


Depending on the family and the manner of celebration, there are a number of ways that Hanukkah is celebrated. The most common type of celebration is lighting the menorah - which is a nine candle holder. There are eight candles, one for each night of Hanukkah, and a single candle in the middle used to light all the others. The menorah is meant to symbolize the lamp that burned for eight days and eight nights with each candle representing one day at a time. This lighting of the menorah can be accompanied by playing with a dreidel, a four sided spinning top, in which players try to earn the most chocolate gelt a.k.a. chocolate coins. Each side has a Hebrew letter, these four letters are shin, hey, gimel, and nun. If a player lands on nun - they do nothing, gimel - they get everything in the pot, hey - the player gets half the pot and shin - the player puts one into the pot. If you have no more to put into the pot, you either are out of the dreidel game or take a “loan” from another player. The goal is to win everything because then the game is over! While playing with the dreidel, a common food that is eaten during these eight days is latkes, a potato pancake fried in oil, typically served with applesauce on the side.


When I was younger, we used to receive bags of golden coins, play with the dreidel, light the menorah, eat latkes and open presents. However, now, I light the menorah, say the prayer and let the candles burn during the night. In my family, some years we get eight small gifts, one large one or no gifts at all, depending on the year and how close to Christmas  Hanukkah falls. Sometimes Hanukkah falls right before Christmas, during Christmas or after Christmas, depending on the year. In my house, we had both our menorah lit as well as our christmas tree with all the lights strung and ornaments placed onto it.


While Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ to those who are religious, for my family - although it means that, it goes beyond the religious meaning and extends to a more familial one. For my family, the  markers of the Christmas season starting is gingerbread houses, cutting down a Christmas tree, drinking hot cocoa, original Christmas movies marathoned on the Hallmark channel, Christmas sweaters, Christmas in the City on the sideboards, roaring fires in the fireplaces and so many more traditions. I still partake in all of those and celebrate Christmas with my non-Jewish side of the family because Christmas to me really centers around the idea of family. Christmas brings the distance closer, reminds me that my home extends beyond Maine, and allows me to spend time with my love ones without worrying about deadlines, applications, exams and let me leave my academic setting for a much needed break.


All in all, I am extremely grateful to be able to spend both holidays with family and celebrate them the same ways that we have ever since I was a little girl. Both of these holidays are incredibly meaningful to myself and my family - going beyond the presents - and to know and celebrate them both is a unique and important part of my life I hope to share with my children someday!