By Sharon Boase and Kristin Nelson
(Dec 23, 2005)
This year, Loren Lieberman and his wife and son can light their
menorah during their annual viewing of a Charlie Brown
As an interfaith family, the Liebermans will open presents with
Christian relatives Christmas morning, eat potato latkes with their
Jewish relatives in the afternoon, then head home to light the first
menorah candle in the evening.
That's because for the first time since 1959 -- and for only the
fourth time in a century -- the first candle of the eight-day
festival of Hanukkah is lit on Christmas this year.
While the first full day of Hanukkah is Dec. 26, Jewish holidays
always begin at nightfall the day before.
Known in his role as general manager of the Festival of Friends
and former executive director of Creative Arts, Lieberman is the son
of a Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother who converted to
For him, the coincidence of the two holidays means an unusually
hectic Christmas Day.
In addition to visiting his maternal relatives and in-laws to
celebrate Christmas, Lieberman, his wife, Lisa, (born Irish
Catholic) and son, Jacob, will also visit his paternal relatives to
"My sister and I were raised Jewish," explains Lieberman, who
attended Hamilton Hebrew Academy and had a bar mitzvah at age
"But the other half of my family -- and much of the rest of the
world -- is Christian.
"It wasn't weird at all. It was, 'My mom's side of the family
does it that way and my dad's side of the family does it this way.'
Just because I have non-Jewish relations doesn't mean I feel the
least bit less Jewish."
Lieberman's story is not as unusual as it once was.
Louis Greenspan, retired professor of religious studies at
McMaster University, says the rates of interfaith marriage are
extremely high -- and rising -- in North America.
In the past, it was unusual for families to celebrate both
Christmas and Hanukkah.
One spouse would give up his or her faith or both would denounce
"But now you have a lot of relationships where both parties
accept the religion of the other and don't feel compelled to
convert," says Greenspan.
Rev. David McInnis, associate minister at Central Presbyterian
Church, agrees that the mixing of cultures and combining of rituals
"Obviously, in an increasingly multicultural society like Canada,
there's only going to be more of it," says McInnis.
"It's not just Jewish and Christian, but other religious
groupings as well."
McInnis, a Jungian therapist, sees both rituals as an expression
of the ancient, human desire for hope at the winter solstice.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that during the
darkest time of year, humans are most in need of spiritual light,"
A number of commonalities exist between Hanukkah and Christmas.
"It's fascinating that the festival of Hanukkah is a celebration of
light and Christmas is also about the birth of light into the
world," he says. "Both holidays are about light overcoming
Rabbi Daniel Green of Adas Israel Synagogue concurs that both
rituals are joyful and bright.
"Hanukkah is a holiday of light," says Green.
"The candle is symbolic of the need to have light and
spirituality permeate the world."
Greenspan acknowledges there is still some resistance to the idea
of combining rituals among more conservative religious leaders.
"Partially, it's generational," he says, "but you don't have
public campaigns against intermarriage like you used to."
The most difficult issue is still how to raise the children, he
says. Greenspan recalls one family he knew that practised
Christianity one year and Judaism the next.
But "to tell you the truth," says Greenspan, "both Christmas and
Hanukkah have become so secular that I don't think there's a problem
That's not the case for Green.
He says it's important for kids to gain a strong sense of
identity and wouldn't recommend the combining of celebrations.
"If they're Christians, they should have a strong Christian
identity and if they're Jewish they should have a strong Jewish
"I think that when you're raising children, it's important to
have clarity," says Green. "Often when we try to give too much, we
don't give anything at all."
It worked out for Lieberman, however.
As a boy, he spent Christmas with his Christian relatives and
Hanukkah with his Jewish relatives and says he enjoyed both.
"Expanding your horizons doesn't take away from your identity at
all," he says.
"Later in life, I went to midnight mass at the Cathedral (of
Christ the King) with my grandmother," he adds.
"It's a beautiful thing to be sitting in that cathedral and to be
sitting with your grandmother."
Next to Christmas, the second biggest holiday on the Christian
calendar, Hanukkah is a lightweight religious holiday.
Honouring the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas is celebrated by
Western churches on Dec. 25 and by most Eastern churches on Jan.
While Jews consider Jesus to have been a notable preacher, unlike
Christians, they don't believe he was the messiah.
Hanukkah commemorates the purification and rededication of the
temple more than 2,000 years ago. It centres on a miraculous flame
that burned for eight days when there was only enough oil for one
It always begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Jewish calendar but
falls anywhere between November and January each year.
Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday that pales in importance when
compared to the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Its
proximity to Christmas is believed to have inflated its perceived
importance in recent years.