Making the most of holiday pop-culture favorites in an interfaith home
In our house, on the day after Thanksgiving, we not only haul the fake Christmas tree up from the basement and decorate it; we also place a menorah in the window and take our dreidels out for a spin.
We enjoy combining traditions—and the usual “Whose family do we spend the holiday with this year?” debate is a blissfully moot point—but this process has also made me sensitive to what this time of year feels like to those who stand outside the overwhelming ubiquity that is Christmas.
For despite all the heated discussion about “the war on Christmas” in recent years, decorations, storefronts, music, clothing, television shows and movies trumpet the holiday’s arrival everywhere you look throughout the month of December. Hanukkah—which, admittedly, has had its significance puffed up by virtue of its proximity to Christmas, according to my husband—just doesn’t stand much of a chance. It’s “Bambi vs. Godzilla” all over again, as evidenced by this brilliant clip of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart singing, “Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?” from the TV special, “A Colbert Christmas.”
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Now, I’ll confess, I’m just as susceptible as the next Goy to repeated, compulsive viewings of “White Christmas,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Elf” on late-night TV at this time of year. But I’ve found that it’s also fun to forage for entertainments that both my husband and I can enjoy and, when appropriate, integrate into our multicultural family, so that maybe we all can get into the spirit of the holiday season in some surprising ways. So here are a few of our favorites things for this holiday season.
• While we don’t refer to this time in our home as “Chrismukkah”—a term coined in 2004 by the Fox network’s hit teen primetime soap, “The O.C.”—Ron Gompertz’s lighthearted book of the same name (subtitled, “Everything You Need to Know to Celebrate the Hybrid Holiday”) is a funny primer full of ideas about how to combine traditions, including tips for fun dual-holiday decorations, and recipes for Noel Noshes like Meshugge Nog and Blitzen’s Blintzes.
And while David Sedaris’ hilarious “Santaland Diaries” is a go-to holiday reading classic, one of my favorites to go back to at this time of year is “Six to Eight Black Men,” which features Sedaris learning about Holland’s very different holiday mythology and traditions.
• For years now, we’ve bought Mixed Blessing cards, which are specficially designed for interfaith families. Our favorites in recent years included one that featured a cartoon Santa frying up potato latkes in his kitchen, and another with an illustration of two cats side by side—one with a yarmulke looking through a window at a menorah, and the other with a Santa hat looking through a different window at a Christmas tree. At least in the world of greeting cards, the playing field has been leveled.
• In terms of television favorites for the season, we’ve always loved a couple of the Christmas episodes of the dramatic series, “The West Wing,” including “In Excelsis Deo,” in which Toby arranges for a homeless vet to receive a military funeral; and “Noel,” in which Josh talks with a psychotherapist about the lingering trauma he's experiencing as a result of being shot, while Yo-Yo Ma provides a gorgeous musical backdrop.
On a lighter note, the aforementioned “A Colbert Christmas” is a favorite; and in 1989, “Saturday Night Live” provided a terrific sketch, “The Night Hanukkah Harry Saved Christmas,” starring Jon Lovitz as Harry; sadly, though, I have yet to unearth it on the web. SNL also gets high marks for its sublimely goofy “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” (which was resurrected on this past weekend’s show, with host Jimmy Fallon) and for the fantastic video short, “Christmastime for the Jews,” which has a great time imagining what the world is like when only populated by Jews for a day:
Next, one of my all-time favorite Christmas episodes of a series is "Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moscowitz," from season 6 of "Frasier," in which the title character is mistaken for a Jew, gets involved with a Jewish woman, and then tries desperately to maintain the ruse. It's sitcom holiday farce at its best.
For the adults—and please take that warning seriously—“South Park” has often done some pretty amusing things with the holidays, including an episode that included a variation of “The Dreidel Song,” as well as Kyle’s classic lament, “A Jew on Christmas.” From the start, show creators and Tony Award winners Trey Parker and Matt Stone (“Book of Mormon”) demonstrated a real genius for musical comedy that's strangely vulgar and sweet at the same time.
• In this same vein, celebrated former U-M psychology professor (and now political consultant) Drew Westen’s “Oy, to be a Goy at Christmas” is perennially entertaining, as is Adam Sandler’s classic “Hanukkah Song,” which is basically a list of Jewish celebrities put to music.
The Indigo Girls’ “Holly Happy Days” album offers several really nice holiday tunes that we’ve been listening to this year, particularly the bluegrass opener, “I Feel the Christmas Spirit”; the easy, contentment-inducing “It Really Is (A Wonderful Life),”; and a rousing cover of Pete Seeger’s “Happy Joyous Hanukkah.”
Finally, in addition to enjoying winter classics like Ray Charles and Betty Carter’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside,”; Joni Mitchell’s “River,”; and Harry Connick, Jr.’s “What are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” I've lately become more and more of a fan of The Maccabeats, an all-male a capella group from Yeshiva University. Their Hanukkah-themed viral hit, "Candlelight" - which used Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" as its basis - was my initial introduction to them last year, but I've been following them since. (How could you resist the line, "I throw my latkes in the air sometimes"?)
• Season-appropriate movies for interfaith families can be tougher. I mean, other than Sandler's "Eight Crazy Nights," can you name a Hanukkah-themed film? Neither can I. So rather than scouring the planet to find one, I like to seek out movies in which Christmas is the backdrop rather than the focus. One of my all-time favorites, “When Harry Met Sally,” is a no-brainer, since the critical last scene happens on New Year’s Eve; besides, while not expressed outright, isn’t the film about a Jewish man and a WASP who are friends that discover they’re made for each other? For us, the story happens to be a perfect fit.
I also love the black and white Ernst Lubitsch classic, “The Shop Around the Corner,” while my husband is a huge fan of “Trading Places,” and we both enjoy “Die Hard” and “While You Were Sleeping.”
And finally, while it has nothing to do with Christmas, I nonetheless get in the mood at this time of year to revisit Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” since it focuses on the way that love, laughter, and family have the potential to transcend the worst imaginable circumstances.