Hanukkah, Christmas and Interfaith dialogue at work

Find out how to start interfaith dialogue at work. Learn from our colleague Debbie’s experiences with Hannukah and Christmas.

Hanukkah is a Jewish festival that commemorates a military victory by the Maccabees, a band of Jewish guerilla fighters, who were seeking to reclaim their land, their Temple, and their sovereignty from the rule of the Syrian Greek Empire. The timing of Hanukkah in the Western calendar changes every year, although it always falls in November or December.  In 2020, it will be held from sundown on 10 December through to sundown on 18 December.

The word ‘Hanukkah’ means ‘dedication’ and refers to the re-purification of the Temple in Jerusalem which took place after the victory in 164 BCE.  As part of restoring the Temple, the Maccabees sought to relight a lamp known as the “eternal flame”, but only had one day’s supply of consecrated olive oil which would take a several days to replenish.  However, they relit the eternal flame and miraculously the oil lasted eight days, enough time for new oil to be produced. 

The importance of the story is two-fold, first it celebrates the victory of the underdogs succeeding in their quest to achieve religious freedom and secondly the miracle of the flame staying alive.

Like the winter festivals of many other religions, Hanukkah emphasises light during the darkest part of the year. It is celebrated for eight days, primarily by the lighting of a menorah – a ceremonial candlestick. 

Unlike my own family now which is inter-faith, I was bought up in a completely Jewish household. In fact I didn’t really mix with any people who weren’t Jewish until I was about 16.  Looking back, this seems strange and I think it was probably a reaction by both my parents to having been raised in largely secular households shortly after WW2, when assimilation was viewed as the safest option.   People still sometimes ask me now – ‘What was it like not being able to celebrate Christmas?’, ‘Did you miss out not having Santa?’, ‘Did you have a tree?’ and are then completely shocked by my response.  I could see these things going on from afar, I loved Hanukkah and feeling a bit different, I appreciated having time off school and watching loads of TV, (‘The Wizard of Oz’ was only shown once a year), but I didn’t miss what I had never had.  I think these questions and disbelief are an indication of how deeply ingrained Christmas is in our culture, to the extent that for many it’s impossible to imagine a life without it.

The winter months include many religious celebrations, and can trigger a range of feelings and emotions for all of us who choose to celebrate with others, regardless of whether we follow the same or different traditions. For example, expectations that we will celebrate as adults in the same way as we did in our youth, tensions between those who have a religious versus irreligious approach and the level of commercialisation we are comfortable with in our lives.  On top of this, if we are also celebrating in a group that spans different religious traditions, there are likely to be added tensions.  For example, conflicting feelings about features in the story of Christmas, or a sense that Christmas is all-consuming and absorbing all the space that might otherwise be available for appreciating other traditions, or concerns about the way the world stops and becomes fixated by Christmas – just think about how it’s imminent arrival is influencing decisions around Covid and the economy.

I have been reading The Interfaith Family guide produced by 18 doors – an organisation to support Interfaith relationships and encourage Jewish families to welcome them. The guide talks about how to manage these tensions within groups with a particular focus on the children involved, who may be receiving vastly different and confusing messages about particular traditions and their value.  It struck me that this advice was of equal importance to the workplace and for our wider work to build understanding between different communities, so wanted to share this with you:

  1. Talk to each other and figure out your common core values;
  2. Try to predict some of the common misunderstandings and assumptions that might come up and use your core values to guide you when preparing how to respond;
  3. Be both compassionate and assertive when responding to misunderstandings – giving people the benefit of the doubt and avoid pouncing on them too easily;
  4. Create opportunities for people to tell their ‘founding story’ and receive positive reassurance that everyone is accepted and welcome.

One final tip: If you are interested in celebrity gossip AND finding out more about Hanukkah – as I obviously was! –it is worth checking out 18 Doors, as they have some great stuff on Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff, probably the most globally famous interfaith couple right now.