It’s the first night of Hanukkah and you’re visiting your daughter’s family to celebrate the holiday. You walk into the living room. And there it is: a tree.
“Oftentimes it doesn’t mean what people think it means. It doesn’t mean anything big and scary,” said Rabbi Jillian Cameron, director of InterfaithFamily/Boston, part of a national organization headquartered in Newton.
Every year, interfaith families face the December dilemma. But while the eight-day Jewish festival occasionally overlaps with Christmas Day, the calendar usually keeps them at a respectful — or at least manageable — distance.
Not this year. The first night of Hanukkah coincides with Christmas Eve, something that only happens two or three times a century. The last time this happened was 1978. The next time is 2027.
We’d need an entire article to explain why, but suffice it to say that the Hebrew calendar is based on the lunar cycle, which means that it’s 11 days shorter than the secular calendar. To keep Jewish holidays in their proper season, every few years a leap month is thrown in.
Cameron, who lives in Salem, has been navigating the crosscurrents of Christian-Jewish relations nearly all her life.
Her father, who was raised in the Conservative Jewish tradition, and her mother, who grew up Catholic, hadn’t at first decided on a religious course for their family.
When she was in second grade, young Jillian attended a Hebrew class with a friend. “I told my parents I wanted to keep going,” she said. “I chose Judaism for my family,” she said.
The timing of this year’s holidays, Cameron said, “definitely forces families to confront the different traditions.” But that could bring families closer together, rather than pulling them apart.
“You might have an opportunity to be together in a different way this particular holiday season,” she said. “Explaining things, sharing these moments, I find, is the best way to divert some of the tension that might exist.”
Cameron said she often fields questions from Jewish grandparents about how to become comfortable with seeing a Christmas tree in their children’s homes.
If they talk with their children’s spouses, she said, they’ll often learn the trees have cultural but not religious significance.
Take, for example, the family of InterfaithFamily’s national communications director, Liz Polay-Wettengel. She was raised Jewish and her husband, David, is a nonpracticing Christian. “I had very strong feelings about raising my children Jewish, and he didn’t have strong feelings,” said Polay-Wettengel. “The only thing he wanted to keep was Christmas,” because it has been part of his family’s tradition.
“There are a lot of people who frown on having a Christmas tree in a Jewish household,” she said. “For us, it’s normal.”
The Salem family also hosts Christmas parties, but the fare includes Jewish treats like latkes and Sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts).
Chana Snyder, who comes from a Christian background, is raising her children in the Jewish faith of her husband, Michael. But the Hanover family does celebrate nonreligious aspects of Christmas. They invited Jewish friends over to help dress up their tree “with a smorgasbord of decorations,” said Chana, including dreidels, pine cones, vacation memorabilia, and ornaments from her Christian childhood. No star or Nativity scene, though.
The Snyders belong to Congregation Sha’aray Shalom, a Reform congregation in Hingham. Since nearly half its members are interfaith families, the temple decided to reschedule its annual Hanukkah party, normally held around the second night of the holiday, to Dec. 30.
“Ultimately for us,” Chana said, the holidays are “about spending time with family, not as much about the gifts and decorations. It’s a chance to beat off the winter blues and enjoy each other.”
Family is what connects Korean native Yoo Jin C. Glassman to Hanukkah. The Cambridge resident was raised in an extended family that included relatives of the Buddhist Catholic and Episcopal faiths. Her husband, Adam, was raised in a Jewish family, and the couple are raising their two children in the religion. As in past years, the Glassmans are spending Hanukkah in Queens, N.Y., with Adam’s cousins.
“I grew up with a big family and everything always revolved around getting together with family and friends, making special kinds of food,” said Glassman, who converted to Judaism at the time of her marriage.
While Chrismukkah has become popular shorthand for interfaith celebrations, Cameron cautions against “conflating them both and having it be the theme.”
Pointing out that as holidays go, Christmas is far more important in the Christian religion than Hanukkah is to Judaism, she advises interfaith couples “to do whatever tradition you have for Christmas in your house or someone else’s house and then you have seven more nights to do Hanukkah in your own space.”
But talk about your plans ahead of time with friends and family. “Don’t just assume things are going to happen,” Cameron said. “Make clear choices about the things you want to do and what’s important to you.”
Jonah Berman, who was raised in a Reform Jewish household, and his wife, Beth Keeley, who grew up in a Christian one, are raising their two sons, both under age 4, in the Jewish tradition. But as has been the family tradition, they’ll spend Christmas with Keeley’s family in Rochester, N.Y.
The Medfield couple talked with Keeley’s mother ahead of time about Hanukkah starting on Christmas Eve. “Beth’s mom said, ‘Great, so I assume you’ll be bringing the menorah, and we’ll light the candles together.’”
Berman said that while his in-laws are “seriously Christian,” that has actually made them more accepting. “They’ve done their homework and really understand that Judaism and Christianity share similar roots,” he said,
The Bermans celebrated Hanukkah early with Jonah’s father, Stanley, in Dover. Other relatives at the party included his sister, Jessica Boatright of Roslindale, who is raising her children to be Jewish with her husband, Eric, who grew up Christian (but now is the one in the family who makes latkes from scratch). The Boatrights are spending Christmas with Eric’s parents in Colorado.
“We love all our family regardless of their religion. We take opportunities to participate in things that are important to them. That doesn’t chip away at my children’s Jewish identity,” Boatright said.