In a rare convergence of lunar and solar calendars, the three great monotheistic religions will mark important religious holidays within eight days.
The celebration of Christmas on Thursday will be preceded one day by the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. And a week later, Dec. 31, begins the month of Ramadan, a time of fasting and spiritual renewal for the world's Muslims.
The coincidence of holidays, which occurs only three times a century, highlights the religious diversity common in many communities. But with diversity can come problems. Couples in interfaith marriages must decide which holiday to celebrate, or to celebrate both. And in classrooms, teachers must tread a fine line, encouraging their students to learn about holiday traditions without causing offense.
Although Christmas falls on Dec. 25 every year according to the solar calendar commonly used throughout the world, the dates of Hanukkah and Ramadan vary because Judaism and Islam follow a 354-day lunar calendar.
Hanukkah falls in December every year because an extra 29-day month is added to the Hebrew calendar every two or three years
to make it correspond to the 365-day solar calendar. When that leap month is added, Hanukkah falls later in the month, closer to Christmas, said Dr. Solomon Golomb, an engineer-mathematician from the University of California who, as a hobby, dabbles in the esoterica of religious calendars.
The Islamic world also follows a lunar calendar, but it ignores the solar year and makes no adjustment to coincide with it, Golomb said.
"Since the solar year is approximately 11 days longer than 12 lunar months, the Islamic year is 11 days shorter than the solar year," Golomb said. "As a result, Ramadan and all other Muslim holidays gradually drift throughout the entire year."
Confused? The basic drift is that Ramadan occurs 11 days earlier each year; therefore, it takes about 30 years for Ramadan to begin in December. "So roughly every 30 to 33 years, you will have one week when Christmas occurs when you will also have Hanukkah and Ramadan," Golomb said.
In a society that is so overwhelmingly Christian, and with so much attention focused on Christmas, it is easy for other religious holidays to get swallowed up. In the Jewish community, the experience of living through the Christmas onslaught each year is described as the "December dilemma."
"I think that the concern of the Jewish community with Christmas celebrations isn't even about theology as much as about social boundaries," said Egon Mayer, executive director of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute. "I think because Jews are such a tiny minority in this country, it's Christmastime more than any other that you're aware of how tiny a minority Jews are." Jews make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population.
The dilemma is sometimes manifested in a temptation to turn Hanukkah into a Jewish version of Christmas, with a Hanukkah bush, songs, elaborate decorations and gift giving.
"The whole idea of presents has no basis in Hanukkah," said Rabbi Shlomo Porter, director of the Etz Chaim Center in Park Heights. "There was a custom of giving children small gifts of money to reward them for their study of Torah that had proceeded in the last few months, called Hanukkah gelt. You give a dollar, a quarter, a dime. But the whole idea of eight days of presents that's an American invention."
And the dilemma can be felt even more acutely in interfaith families, who have to decide to whether to celebrate Hanukkah, or Christmas, or both.
Rabbi Kenneth Block of the Harford Jewish Center in Havre de Grace said that during a recent "December dilemma" discussion he led among interfaith couples, they talked about how it was possible for a Jewish spouse to participate in some aspects of a Christmas celebration, as long as one draws the line at religious observance.
"The tension was not, 'a tree or not a tree?' " Block said. "The tension was one spouse expecting the other to accept a piece that was not acceptable."
The coincidence of the holidays could exacerbate that tension.
"For [interfaith] families, this is a time of working through inner feelings, examining conflicting emotions, no matter what their responses might be any other time of the year," said Rabbi Donald Berlin of Temple Oheb Shalom. "In some respects, in those years where the Jewish calendar has Hanukkah at a different time from Christmas, it is in some ways easier for the couples because they can come at each issue full force without feeling quite as conflicted."
For the Lang family of White Marsh, the season has caused no December dilemma. Joanne Lang is Jewish, and her husband, Tom, was raised Roman Catholic. Although they are raising their children, 7-year-old Michael and 2-year-old Samantha, in the Jewish faith, they have a Christmas tree in the house and they will get Christmas presents.