For Jewish and interfaith families, December has long come with a dilemma: how to distinguish celebration of the historically modest Jewish festival of lights from the overwhelming extravaganza that Christmas has become. This year, it's the dilemma of Dec. 25. Christmas and the first night of Hanukkah fall on the same day.
Hanukkah, which celebrates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem and the flask of oil that miraculously lit its menorah for eight nights, is a minor Jewish holiday. But its proximity to Christmas has always invited comparisons that, especially this year, bring religious and cultural differences sharply into focus.
With the holidays falling together, "you just can't ignore the comparisons. You can't ignore the choices that have to be made around that time of year," said Jacki Ashkin, who oversees the Jewish Outreach Network, a program of Jewish Family Services of Central Maryland and the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, which runs programs for interfaith families and people who have converted to Judaism.
It's a rare collision of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars. Hanukkah, which falls between late November and the end of December, has started on the evening of Dec. 25 only three other times in the past 100 years, said Judith Hauptman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Pikesville, said the coincidence of the holidays can ease the "envy" factor that Jewish children often feel on Christmas.
"It's very good that they're getting presents the same day," Wohlberg said. Often, he said, by the time Christmas comes, Hanukkah presents "are already broken and the batteries are worn out."
But the more serious downside of the calendar coincidence is that "it lends itself to more misinterpretation," the rabbi said. "The very fact that both are coming out at the same time can lead some people to say that Hanukkah is really the Jewish response to Christmas."
The experience of accommodating both holidays is shared by so many that the term "Chrismukkah," popularized last year on the television show The O.C. to describe the traditions of a family with a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, has become a controversial buzzword. To Ron Gompertz of Bozeman, Mont., it's turned into an online business that sells Merry Mazel Tov greeting cards and a cookbook with recipes like Kris Kringle Kugel.
"It's a metaphor, it's a mood, it's a state of mind," Gompertz, a Jewish man who married the daughter of a Protestant minister, said of the concept. "It's certainly not a holy day."
Actually, Gompertz, his wife and young daughter usually separate their celebrations of the holidays, joining his wife's, family in Indiana for Christmas festivities and staying home for Hanukkah. But because the holidays fall together this year -- and because his "Chrismukkah" business has taken off -- Gompertz, his wife and daughter probably won't be able to travel to spend Christmas with the Christian side of their family. "We'll probably have our Christmas tree and our menorah and have our friends over," he said.
A survey of nearly 400 people this fall by Interfaithfamily.com, an online magazine and network aimed at interfaith families trying to raise their children as Jewish, found that two-thirds planned to keep their celebrations separate, despite the shared date. Thirty percent said the calendar would change how they observed Hanukkah; 19 percent said it would alter their Christmas plans, and 65 percent said it would affect neither. About 78 percent said that "Chrismukkah" was a bad idea.
Interfaithfamily.com president Edmund Case, who is Jewish, recalls making latkes, a traditional Hanukkah dish, at the home of his in-laws once when the holidays overlapped. He sees that kind of interaction as positive for Jewish identity.
"Those not-Jewish relatives normally don't celebrate Hanukkah, and then it's brought to the forefront there," he said.
Mike and Karen Bowling of Eldersburg, who are raising their three children as Jewish, will join his family in La Plata for Christmas, then return to light the menorah that night at home. But they'll have to miss the Hanukkah celebration at their local synagogue. "On the very same day this year, it's a little tough," Mike Bowling said.
But the concurrent holidays fit nicely into the plans of Donna and David Elliott, who usually celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas together with a big dinner on Christmas Eve at their Clarksville home. On the actual eight nights of Hanukkah, they focus on the religious observance: They light the menorah, and 4-year-old son Daniel, who is being raised as Jewish, spins a dreidel and receives chocolate coins.