Keith and Michele Krichinsky observe both Christmas and Chanukah traditions.

Written By Jeffrey Roth, Photos by: Gregory Blank

Keith and Michele Krichinsky of Hampstead have had a blended family, observing Christmas and Chanukah traditions, for the past 12 years. Keith is Jewish and Michele is Christian.

The parents of five children and grandparents of three, the Krichinsky’s home is decorated with a menorah as well as a Christmas tree.

When they married, Michele’s children were nearly out of high school, while Keith’s were in elementary and middle school. The youngest children believed in Santa Claus and they all celebrated Christmas, as did many of their classmates and friends.

“Keith lit menorah candles each night and explained what each represented,” said Michele. “My husband does not observe kosher, but he likes latkes and he prepares them.”

The family attends Chanukah services at a synagogue, as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services, she said.

Winter holiday celebrations are common across cultures and religions, according to Don Hoepfer, associate professor of philosophy at Carroll Community College. They tend to focus on restoration, recuperation, hope and promise – a promise of deliverance from the season’s short, dark days.

Winter traditions include the use of candles, evergreens, festive colors, foods, drinks, music, sights, sounds and storytelling. Contemporary winter holiday traditions grew from ancient roots, forming a mosaic of the sacred and secular.

This year the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, occurs in the northern hemisphere on December 22 at 5:30 a.m., Coordinated Universal Time, marking the return of the sun and the retreat of night. The phenomenon is also the impetus for a colorful spectrum of religious and cultural celebrations, including Christmas.

Throughout history, the solstice has carried social, economic, cultural and religious significance and symbolism. That importance was not lost on Julius Caesar, when, in 46 BCE, he designated December 25 in the Julian calendar as the date of the winter solstice in Europe.

As a result, Christmas, Hanukkah and many other religious and cultural celebrations fall during the month of December. There is not an Islamic winter holiday tradition. The last major Islamic religious holiday, Ramadan, based on a lunar calendar, ended on August 31. This year, Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, falls on November 6. Muharram, the Islamic New Year, falls on November 26 this year.

The North American Shin Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day, which, when based on the Japanese Buddhist calendar, falls on December 8. Other Buddhist sects do not celebrate a winter holiday.

One of the most important Shin Buddhist holidays, Bodhi Day commemorates Buddha’s enlightenment under the bo tree 2,600 years ago in Gaya, India. As do Christians, Buddhists incorporate winter holiday customs of other cultures, such as multicolored strings of light, candles, and gifts. A live ficus tree (the Bodhi tree) is brought into the home and decorated with lights. It is a celebration of renewal, faith, community and family.

In European culture, particularly that of the Celts, the solstice was and continues to be celebrated as Yule, said Dristin Morgana, (whose real name is Sharon Jewett-Titus), of the Covenant of Ancient Knowledge and Wisdom in Hampstead.

For Wiccans and other pagan religionists who follow the Celtic wheel-of-the-year, the festival of Yule falls between December 22 and 24. The early Christian church borrowed many of the pagan customs. These secular Christmas customs, such as trimming trees, lighting candles, decorating with lights, mistletoe and holly, are modern versions of the solstice rituals, but that is only part of the story.

“I think we can trace a lot of the traditions and how we view Christmas from the Victorian era and the works of Charles Dickens,” said Hoepfer. “Many of our Christmas carols and holiday customs come from that era as well.”

The first recorded observance of December 25 as the birthday of Jesus was in 336 CE, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor. Several years later, Pope Julius I officially adopted December 25 as Christmas.

Contemporary secular American Christmas customs, Morgana said, can be traced back to the Yule rituals of the Celts, the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and the winter festival celebrating the birth, death and later resurrection of the Roman sun god Mithra, a favorite of the Roman Legion.

Holly, ivy, mistletoe and other evergreens were thought to ward off evil spirits and used to celebrate rebirth, renewal and everlasting life, she said. For Christians, the prickly leaves of holly came to symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Christ when he was crucified, and the red berries were associated with drops of his blood.

Hanukkah or Chanukah, as it is variously spelled, is the Jewish winter holiday. It differs from other holidays in that it commemorates an event that occurred after the close of the era of the first five books of the Bible, i.e., the Torah, explained Barry Feinstein, a lay leader of the Westminster Synagogue.

Chanukah, an eight-day Festival of Lights, commemorates the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean revolt in the second century, BCE. It runs from December 20 to 28, and is a celebration of the triumph of light over darkness, spirituality over materiality.

“In 168 BCE,” said Feinstein, “the Seleucids, [Syrian-Greeks], attempted to exterminate the Hebrew faith. A group of about 3,000 to 4,000 Jews led by Judah Maccabee fought for three years, eventually reclaiming the sacred Temple of Jerusalem.

“When they attempted to light the Temple’s menorah, a branched candelabrum, they found they had only one cruse of oil. Through the intervention of God, the oil lasted for eight days, until new oil could be secured,” Feinstein said.

“ÔChanukah’ means re-dedication,” said Feinstein. “The Chanukah menorah has eight branches for the eight days and one branch at the side or on top to represent the one cup of oil.”

Feinstein said that, like Christmas, Chanukah has become more of a secular celebration. Gifts are given during the eight-day celebration. Families come together to celebrate with food and treats. Fried foods, such as latkes, a potato pancake, are traditional fare served during the celebration.

The modern dreidel, a spinning top that is marked with four Hebrew letters, an acronym for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” (“A great miracle happened there”), is a traditional Chanukah symbol. During the Maccabean revolt, it was used as a way for Jews to meet on street corners, pretending to gamble, when in fact, they were covertly practicing their faith.

Feinstein said Chanukah is “more of an in-home celebration,” than other holidays, such as Passover, which are celebrated at home and during services in synagogues. At home, the story of Chanukah is told during the lighting of candles on the menorah. Blessings are said and gifts are exchanged each night.

Kwanzaa, a recent cultural celebration, was established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of African studies at California State University at Long Beach, under the auspices of The Organization Us, a black nationalist group.

Mahlia Joyce, director of the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at McDaniel College, said Kwanzaa was created as an African-American and Pan-African holiday that runs from December 26 to January 1.

Kwanzaa comes from a Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits”. Joyce said first-fruits celebrations have been part of the cultural history of Africa as far back as ancient Egypt – and have been celebrated by different African tribes, such as the Zulu, Ashanti and others.

“Kwanzaa celebrates seven principles,” Joyce said. “They form goals to guide personal behavior. It is not a religious holiday. It is a cultural celebration.”

The seven principles, known as Nguzo Saba, advocate unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, collective economics, purpose, creativity and faith. McDaniel has hosted Kwanzaa obervances for the past 10 years.

Joyce said candles held in the kinara are lit each day of the festival; the feast of karamu is held the last day of Kwanzaa. African-American, African, Caribbean and South American dishes featuring fruits, vegetables, meats and sweets are prepared. Homes are decorated using African colors of red, green and black; simple gifts are exchanged each day; music and artistic performances are often part of the celebration.

Pastor Marty Kuchma of St. Paul United Church of Christ, Westminster, pointed out that Christmas embodies symbolism shared by many ancient customs. The birth of Jesus represents the birth of light in the world; the battle between darkness and light, good and evil. It signifies rebirth, renewal and conquering death.

Jennifer Havilak, director of education for the Cedarhurst Unitarian Universaliasts, said inclusion, tolerance, understanding, family and community is the common theme of winter holiday celebrations. The concept of All Paths Lead to God epitomizes the Unitarian message, and is the core theme of the winter holiday observances. The church often incorporates various festivals of lights and the teachings from other religions, cultures and belief systems.

“At the heart of Christianity is the message of John [Chapter] 17. [Christ] prays that we all be one,” said Kuchma. “The idea of coming together as a family, as a community, is more critical than we often remember.”