This Year, the Meaning of Dec. 25 Is Twofold

Scott Edwards, who is Catholic, and wife Eve, who is Jewish, are raising Jessie, left, 3, and Ariana, 5, in both faiths. The first night of Hanukkah last fell on Christmas in 1959.
Scott Edwards, who is Catholic, and wife Eve, who is Jewish, are raising Jessie, left, 3, and Ariana, 5, in both faiths. The first night of Hanukkah last fell on Christmas in 1959. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2005

For the first time in her life, Eve Edwards of McLean will get to unwrap presents Christmas morning and light the first candle of Hanukkah on Christmas night.

It's Christmastime in the city. And Hanukkah, too.

The first night of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights, falls on Christmas Day for the first time since 1959 and for only the fourth time in 100 years. And Edwards -- who is Jewish, married to a Catholic and raising their two daughters in both faiths -- is primed for the occasion.

"I'm packing up the menorah with the candles and taking it to my Catholic mother-in-law's," said Edwards, 35.

No one really equates Hanukkah, a secondary Jewish holiday, with Christmas, which hardly needs amplification. The holidays sometimes overlap; in 1997, the first night of Hanukkah was Dec. 23. But this year's coincidence gives Dec. 25 a special luster of inclusiveness.

For kids and retailers, there should be no argument with the dual fete because it means a bonanza in some cases: double the presents. Bosses who depend on Jewish employees to work for their Christian colleagues need not worry about any change in tradition. Hanukkah does not arrive until nightfall, and besides, it's a Sunday, with skeleton crews at many workplaces.

But in some households, there may be a few debates: Will it be mashed potatoes with that big meal or potato latkes?

"There's no reason an interfaith family can't enjoy potato latkes with their Christmas dinner," Edwards said, settling the matter for one household.

Perhaps the best thing about the holiday coincidence is the obvious point: fewer people left out of festivities that day. Jeff Cohen, who is Jewish and usually spends Dec. 25 as "a quiet day without the phone ringing," is attending a first-time Community Hanukkah Celebration in Potomac that evening that will double as his 50th birthday party (no matter that his birthday is a few days earlier). His family is supplying the cake.

"It's nice when the whole community is involved in celebration," he said. "It's nice that everybody is having their own special time."

Many things will continue as they always have on Dec. 25. Temple Sinai of Northwest Washington will serve pancakes at area homeless shelters, allowing Christian volunteers to have the morning off. And the D.C. Jewish Community Center, for the 19th year, will send about 1,000 volunteers to work in 60 area hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities. This year, the difference is that the call for volunteers has been extended to Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu groups.

"We're trying to make the event welcoming to all religions. Not just, 'Hey, it's Christmas and Hanukkah,' but inclusive to everybody," said Craig Gerard, director of the center's Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service. That night, he said, the volunteers will be invited back to the community center on 16th Street NW for the lighting of a menorah and "food from around the world."

For interfaith families, the holidays clearly spotlight the hazards of "The December Dilemma." That term was adopted a few years ago by the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington to describe the challenge of respecting -- and especially this year, juggling -- the traditions of different cultures. Some welcome the double celebration.

"Every interfaith family perceives it differently, but for us, we think it's cool," said Jennifer Liebreich, 30, of Takoma Park, a Catholic married to Rob, a Jew, and the mother of 6-month-old Joseph. "We'll be at my family's house and we'll explain the menorah to them again. . . . I think my husband has actually learned more about Judaism being married to me than he ever knew before."

The Liebreichs and other interfaith families appreciate what the two holidays share: Both are happy social occasions, they say, and both emphasize the beauty of lights. The central story of Hanukkah is the miracle of the lights, when oil that seemed sufficient to light a temple menorah for one night managed to last for eight. But few families care for the blended terms that have surfaced in popular culture, such as Chrismukkah and Hanumas.

The other night, the Liebreichs put up their Christmas tree, which has an ornament with the Star of David on one side and a tiny Christmas tree on the other. "It took a number of hours, and we were both a little bit frustrated, and we turned off the lights and were looking at the tree, and I said, 'Thank you for letting us have Christmas in our house,' and he said, 'Thank you for bringing Christmas into our house,' " Jennifer Liebreich said. "We try not to dwell on the commercialism of the holidays. We enjoy them both."

Erica Burman, 42, isn't sure what to expect this Christmas. In a recent Interfaith Families Project essay, Burman, who is Catholic and married to a Jew, joked that being part of an interfaith family usually means that Christmas "is mine. No debates over whether to open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. No competing food or gift traditions. No guilt over whether we go to my family or his."

But this Christmas, Eric and Erica Burman, along with their two daughters, are flying to Santa Fe, N.M., to visit Eric's father, who is Jewish but not very observant and has a Buddhist partner with children of her own. Erica Burman said she's taking the Christmas stockings. Her husband said he sees no conflict at all.

"Both Christmas and Hanukkah are celebrations of joy," he said. "In fact, having them together, except for the fact that people might have to race around from one table to another, might be a way of underscoring our common ground: 'Let's bring everybody closer together.' "

© 2005 The Washington Post Company