My Mormon Hanukkah Celebration

This year, on an impulse, I picked up a menorah and candles, and we’re trying out a new (at least, for my family) tradition — Hanukkah.

Truth be told, it wasn’t entirely just an impulse. My grandfather on my mother’s side was Jewish, and I’ve always been aware of my Jewish heritage and ancestry. But I’ve never done much about it.

Hanukkah seemed like an easy start. I recall my mother discussing celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas in her mixed-religion household growing up. And so I read up a little bit on it, and off we went.

We’re celebrating Hanukkah-lite, I think. We’re lighting the candles, putting them in the window, and we’ve told the story of the miracle of the eight days. But I’m not really sure how to use or make a dreidel or what to do with it. And the prayers that I found were all in languages that I can’t understand. And so we’re starting with some easy elements — a menorah, some candles, and presents.

The first night was a bit strange. We told the kids we would be celebrating Hanukkah. Sullivan then asked if that meant that we were Jewish now. I explained that we were celebrating the holiday to honor our Jewish heritage, but that it didn’t mean that we were Jewish.

Lighting the candles is never a problem. My kids are all pyromaniacs. The (very condensed) story of the eight days went mostly over their heads, I think. And they enjoyed the presents. We’re going on night number four tonight, and I think the kids are getting used to the idea. (Not to mention they like the presents). It’s been a fun new tradition, and I think it’s one that we’ll keep.

I find it interesting that different people from different backgrounds are adapting Hanukkah to their own use. It’s not just me — there are also the Chrismukkah folks. And Chris Walton has an interesting discussion of how Unitarians adapt Hanukkah. They’re interesting data points as I try to figure out how we’re going to adapt this holiday in my own home. But I think it’s definitely a tradition we’re going to try to add and incorporate into the family.

20 comments for “My Mormon Hanukkah Celebration

  1. You might be interested in the Christian theologian Harvey Cox’s personal book, “Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year.” When he married a Jewish woman and they had a child, they decided to raise the child as a Jew. I haven’t yet read the book, but I’ve heard from others that it does a good job of talking about ways Christians can respectfully engage in this kind of interfaith activity.

    The post you mention on my site is focused on the dilemma of adapting the religious practices of other faith traditions for one’s own congregational worship — a different kettle of fish than figuring out how to honor various traditions in the home.

  2. My mother does a Seder every year, and when I’m at a point in my life that I can manage it, I want to do the same thing.

    Hanukkah is such a beautiful tradition. My best friend in high school was Jewish, and every year I would attend at least one night with her family. My memories are of loveliness and solemnity, very different from the exuberance of Christmas with my ten siblings. (Although my parents insituted some really wonderful sacred Christmas traditions in our family, which I may post about next week.)

  3. I grew up in a very Jewish town, so I got to sing “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel” along with “Jingle Bells” at school. I used to have some idea of what to do with the darn thing. Seems vaguely like gambling.

    Hanukkah (or however you want to spell it) always seemed a bit like it suffered from Christmas envy when I was a kid. It’s a very different kind of observance than the traditional Christian Christmas celebration, but somehow it got caught up in all of the decorating and shopping that the rest of the world does come December. As a result, there was an odd kind of tension between the story of Hanukkah as I understood it and the symbols and celebrations that I saw.

  4. This is slightly off topic, but why don’t we Mormons celebrate Passover? Exodus 12:14 says, “And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever.” In The Articles of Faith, Talmage uses this scripture as evidence that the Passover feast was not replaced by the sacrament, but he adds no mare clarification to this.

  5. I guess I should ask Richard Bushman about this, but I have been told that there is no evidence Joseph Smith ever celebrated Christmas, no letters about it, parties given, singing or services of any kind.

    Christmas was really on the wane in the early 19th Century, both in America and England. Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol actually served to prop up the holiday a little, and also Prince Albert, the German-born husband of Victoria, was a big celebrater and brought over a bunch of German traditions like the Christmas tree.

    Just a little information to say, maybe the Smiths of early Kirtland might not have thought about Christmas. It is a MASS, after all, so maybe they distanced themselves from it.

  6. I like Jewish holidays. I’m not sure how I’d integrate celebration of Jewish holidays into our Caucasian/Chinese-American home but the night we got engaged I took Diane to a celebration of Purim at a synagogue in Park City. I’ve already told that tale before so I’ll try to make this the last time I bring it up in comments at T&S. Still, it’s a great memory and sometimes I like to think that the anniversary of our engagement falls on the Jewish calendar rather than the Gregorian.

  7. D Fletcher, ironically, you can thank Unitarians for helping to import a lot of what we now think of as Christmas. Dickens was in his Unitarian phase when he wrote “A Christmas Carol,” and the Christmas tree caught on in New England with the advocacy of a German-born Unitarian minister and Harvard professor, Charles Follen, in the 1830s. One of the earliest modern American Christmas carols is “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” also by a Unitarian minister, in the late 1840s.

  8. Philocrites,

    Yes, but that was prior to the UU merger, right? And at that point, weren’t Unitarians another branch of Christian thought, rather than necessarily being universalists? I may be wrong here, but I thought that the UU combination was of more recent provenance.

  9. Of course, Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published in New York City in 1822, a full 20 years before A Christmas Carol. Christmas celebrations can’t have been too scarce at that time in our country.

  10. danithew, I thought Purim was supposed to be celebrated by getting so drunk that you cannot tell your enemy from your friend. I haven’t heard this story that you’ve told elsewhere, and I doubt that others would mind if you told it again.

  11. DKL,

    I think you’re right … Purim is the one day that (arguably) Jews are encouraged to get drunk. However, I haven’t seen this practiced so I have no idea whether its really practiced all that much.

    The story is this:

    I had a particular evening in mind for my wife and I to get engaged. Around the same time I read a newspaper article about a large number of Torah scrolls that had been preserved during the Holocaust. The Germans had collected these scrolls with the purpose of creating a museum to “an extinct people.” After the war a Jewish foundation took charge of these scrolls and determined that synagogues around the world could apply for ownership of a scroll (one per synagogue of course). A Reform synagogue in Park City had applied for one of these Torah scrolls and received it.

    Honestly, I thought it was fabulous that a synagogue in Utah had one of these scrolls and I wanted to see it.

    So I called the rabbi there and asked him if it would be ok for my fiance-to-be and I to come see this sacred historical relic on a particular Saturday night. The rabbi said that would be fine and also added that this very same night the congregation was celebrating Purim. He invited us to attend and celebrate Purim with them. To me that was just too cool.

    Purim is a holiday where kids dress up (like Halloween). Some of the kids dress up as Esther or Mordechai … but they also dress up as fairies, superheroes, etc. So when we arrived not only did we get to look at this scroll and read a little bit even of it … but we also were given the assignment to judge the costumes (since we were of course the most nonpartial observers in the room).

    We had a very nice time.

    After that I took Diane to a nice restaurant in Park City, ate dinner and then later that evening we got engaged.

    Forgive me for sharing something that personal on this thread. But it’s a happy memory for me and hey, it involved a Jewish holiday too.

  12. Excellent story, Dan. I hadn’t heard it yet, so thanks.

    Joseph Smith and Christmas is a bit off topic here, so I’ll save the details for another time. Last year I got called at the last minute to give a talk, so I looked up all the references from History of the Church. There are enough that it seemed clear to me that the prophet was celebrating Christmas in Nauvoo.

  13. Kaimi, right! The Unitarians as a group tended to think of themselves as a branch of Christianity until the early- to mid-20th century (although some of the more radical Transcendentalists thought they had surpassed and transcended Christianity as early as the 1840s) — and the Universalists, who tended to be “more Christian” than the increasingly humanistic Unitarians, merged with them in 1961.

  14. danithew: So you got engaged and judged a Jewish costume contest on the same night. That’s awesome. You’re the only Mormon I know with a Purim story, and it’s a really good one at that.

  15. The local Unitarian-Universalists here in Ann Arbor, would shudder if they heard themselves referred to as “christians” of any sort. I think the UUA has sometime in the recentpast formalised some kind of an official statement proclaiming that they are not Christians.
    Funny thing is that while a lot of LDS rebels leave our Church and join the UUA, i was a member of t he UUA before i joined o ur Church!!!!

  16. MY wife is half Jewish and half Italian, and raised in Brooklyn. I am American mutt, Texas variety (grew up in Dallas). It makes life interesting in more ways than one, but I bring this up to relate a passover story.

    It happened maybe four or five years ago. A young woman lived with us at the time who came from a ploygamous family. Her father was interested in most things Hebrew or Jewish, so my wife organized a passover seder.

    We integrated it with Mormon thought to the point that I presided, but my wife conducted. It was still one of the oddest things I have ever witnessed, with almost forty people crammed into our apartment: me, my wife, our roommates father and his three wives, their twenty five or so children, plus some children-in-laws and grandchildren. And reading Hebrew, inviting Elijah to join us, passing around the seder plate, the whole thing.

    We’ve tried Haunakkah several times, but we’re not organized enough to light candles for eight days in a row. Still, we do have a family menorah, probably the only family in our ward that can say that.

  17. Interesting that you are celebrating Hanukka. As my Jewish partner pointed out to me, the story behind the candles was a war to exterminate the Jewish Faith. Without Hanukka, there would be no Christmas.

    The story of the Macabees is pretty interesting, and showed God’s hand in thier preservation. Light up the Minorah, and give a big thank you to your Jewish Friends.

  18. My family has started to observe a Seder-lite and I’ve considered a Hunukkah-lite as well.

    We’ve eschewed many traditional secular Christmas traditions (just wish I could kick out old Santa Claus) for more of a focus on the meaning of Christmas. On our own (we’d never heard of anyone else doing this) we began on Christmas Eve having the family dress as if they would if we’d lived in Bethlehem when Christ was born. We light the house only with oil lamps and we eat the food that they may have eaten then in Bethlehem. Then, by lamp light, we read Luke’s description of Christ’s birth.

    To our suprise, this year our Ward Christmas Party has tossed old Santa out on his jolly elf ear and they’re having a “Night in Bethlehem” which is nearly identical – but on a Ward level – to the tradition we started years ago.

    I think that all of these observances are useful in focusing our family on our true biblical and spritual heritage and away from worldly things.

    Thanks for posting this as it gives me more reason to go with my desire to recognize Hanukkah in our home.

  19. I’ve had a mostly dormant interest in things Jewish. My enthusiasm for all the hoop-la that surrounds Christmas has been waning for several years. I sarcastically think of it sometimes as “The Gift-Giving Festival.” I have not totally given up on Christmas though, and have tried to find more of the spirit of it. The person who told about Christmas Eve as the Town of Bethlehem night, gave an excellent idea.

    I did celebrate Hanukkah for the first time this year, and it has given an extra nice touch to December. I have found out quite a bit more details about the Hanukkah story than I used to know. Hanukkah does has possible LDS applications (to our own LDS history). I plan to celebrate Hanukkah next year again.

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