Question: What do 1918, 1921, 1959, 2005 and 2016 have in common?
Answer: They are the only years in the past 100 in which Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah fall together, and therefore Christmas Day and the first day of Hanukkah occur together on Dec. 25.
Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday that begins at sundown, as do all Jewish holidays, but the Jewish calendar is lunar, has 13 months, and has varying dates for holidays each year compared with the Gregorian calendar.
It is true that the two holidays have absolutely nothing in common except their date. While Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, Hanukkah celebrates the fact that while there was only enough oil to light the Eternal Flame for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight days when the Jewish Maccabees regained control of their temple after a fierce battle with the Syrians during the second century B.C.
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The unusual correspondence of dates this year has implications for interfaith couples. A survey in 2013 that was reported in an op-ed piece in the New York Times revealed that before 1960, about 20 percent of marriages in the United States were interfaith. Now the number has risen to 45 percent. Those most likely to intermarry are Jewish, mainline Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated, while those least likely to intermarry are Mormons, Hindus and Muslims. The writer of the op-ed piece was herself Jewish, married to an African American man who was a Jehovah’s Witness.
The coinciding of the holidays can be a boon or a source of stress for interfaith families. Some have decided to expose their children to both religions and “let them choose” when they are old enough to understand the choice. I call these “multifaith” families. Others have focused on one religion and raised their children in that faith.
Some critics of the “let them choose” option have argued that children will be confused and lack clear identity, and that the parents will also let their own religious identification diminish. But some studies have shown that about one-third of Christian parents in an interfaith marriage actually attend church more than previously, and about one-third of Jewish parents in an interfaith marriage attend synagogue or temple services to a greater degree than before marriage.
But nobody said there wouldn’t be complications. One woman tells the story of her own multifaith marriage. When their two daughters were young, this Jewish woman and her Catholic husband were divorced. They had brought up their daughters to understand and observe both religions.
When the older daughter was in middle school, she decided to become Catholic and began attending religious services with her father. A few years later, the younger daughter voluntarily began studying Hebrew and eventually had a bat mitzvah, a service celebrating a girl’s arrival at young womanhood.
These religious choices created conflict between the two girls and a distance that saddened both parents, who now had two teen daughters with different religions. Eventually, when the older daughter was in college, the two girls came to resolve and respect some of their differences.
So what might a celebration look like in an interfaith family when holidays from both religions coincide? The Christmas turkey and the Hanukkah latkes (potato pancakes) will share the table. The eight-pronged Hanukkah menorah will light the room along with the Christmas tree. Gift wrapping paper, some blue and white and some red and green, will be strewn on the living room carpet.
Some interfaith families with young children have taken to reading Lemony Snicket’s book called “The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story.” A review in Wired magazine tells the story of a latke that begins to scream when it is dropped in a pan of hot oil. It runs down the street, meeting several different kinds of talking Christmas decorations.
When the latke explains the Hanukkah traditions to the decorations, each decoration mistakes the tradition for something to do with Christmas, which makes the latke scream again. The moral is to instill tolerance and respect for other people’s traditions.
In truth, as a Jew I can tell you that many Jewish people feel frustrated when Christians mistake Jewish traditions for a variation on the Christian theme, or act amazed when Jews do not have Christmas trees in their homes. Of course, some do, either because their families are multifaith or because they think their children might feel “deprived” if they don’t match what their non-Jewish friends have.
Reading the Lemony Snicket book might not be a bad idea for all of us.
Francine M. Farber is a retired school district administrator and a full-time community volunteer.