Food for Thought #3: Celebrate It All!

More is better when it comes to the holidays. It can be easy to miss the spirit of goodwill that is supposed to accompany the winter holidays, what with all the fighting going on. No, I don’t mean the folks coming to blows over X-Boxes at Black Friday sales. I’m talking about those determined to impose their limited view of the season on others, the grinches who have a hard time with phrases like “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.”

This past weekend, while shopping for a new menorah, I had a really odd encounter. An elderly man spied me as he searched for Christmas cards – he was surprised to see me assessing the merits of various candelabra. (Suffice to say that I don’t look typically Jewish.) And he had the chutzpah to express himself.

“You look funny poking around those Jewish lamps,” the grizzled gent said with a frown on his face. “Aren’t you a Christian?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then aren’t you supposed to celebrate Christmas? What would Jesus think?”

Putting aside my mixture of amusement and mild outrage, I answered back that like Jesus, Jewishness is part of my ethnic makeup. “Even if it wasn’t, I would still celebrate everything,” I said. “All the winter holidays are about miracles and goodness and joy. Why can’t we celebrate it all?”

I suppose the question was beyond the critic’s understanding. He shook his head, harrumphed, and left to continue his search.

His loss.

Indeed, why not celebrate it all? My family always has. I recall many happy years being surrounded by the trappings of the season: a Christmas tree, dreidels, harvest baskets filled with fruits and flowers. It was always a thrill to receive presents on Christmas Day and on each of Hanukkah’s eight crazy nights. When I became a parent, I passed all of these traditions down to my children, who probably would experience a feeling of loss if consigned to picking one holiday over another.

These days, our holidays consist of a blending of many traditions and tastes. Something would feel wrong if our table didn’t include Christmas snickerdoodles and latkes and roasted vegetables to mark Winter Solstice; if our decorations excluded a menorah, an Advent wreath, or a Kwanzaa candle holder. Spousal Unit, who embraced the concept when I introduced it to him eons ago, coined his own term for our celebratory hodgepodge: Chrismakkahkwanstice, which combines the best of each individual observance and allows us to celebrate Christ’s birth, honor the miracle of the Maccabees’ oil-burning lamp, remind ourselves to live the positive principles of Kwanzaa, and give thanks for the bounty of nature. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

And we aren’t alone in celebrating cross-culturally: Many blended households have combined Christmas and Hanukkah for decades. The popular TV show The O.C. features multiculti celebration as a storyline. And a new book, Chrismukkah, shares the annual traditions of Christian-Jewish families and explains the beauty and love behind them.

From author Ron Gompert:

Chrismukkah is a gumbo of secular traditions. It’s the good stuff we can enjoy, no matter what our faith… snowmen, sleigh rides, twinkling lights, flickering candles, getting together with family and friends. It’s a medley of Bing Crosby’s crooning “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” Bruce Springsteen’s rollicking “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Adam Sandler’s nebbishy “Hanukkah Song.” It’s decorating the holiday tree, baking cookies, lighting candles, nibbling on chocolate gelt and peppermint sticks. Chrismukkah begins on the first night of Hanukkah and continues through Christmas Day (or the last night of Hanukkah, whichever occurs later). Chrismukkah is dogma-free and completely customizable… so feel free to add your favorite rituals from the other December holidays…Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Boxing or Bodhi Day – even Festivus.

The book tells of other benefits to celebrating it all: “It’s a way to level the playing field, to solve what’s been called the December Dilemma. It can eliminate friction, confusion and awkwardness sometimes brought on by the holidays. And for parents, Chrismukkah can be a great way to introduce children to the traditions and rituals of both Hanukkah and Christmas.”

Indeed, what could be better than inclusion during the season of peace, love and goodwill? When people disagree over political and religious issues, many call for focusing on commonalities rather than differences. Says Chrismukkah, “Liberals and conservatives, black and white, straight and gay, atheist and evangelical, naughty and nice – all are invited to pin the dreidel under the mistletoe!”

Sounds like heaven to me. Especially when friends are brought into the equation. What better way to build bridges than to celebrate by sharing a multitude of traditions with others? And what better way to symbolize cross-cultural blendings than with food?

One of the best parts of Chrismukkah is the recipes it shares. Kathy Stark, who created these recipes, calls them “hybrids” that take the yummiest Christian and Jewish traditional dishes and combine them in the most delicious ways.

Stark and Gompertz agree with me on another important point: It’s all about taste. Accordingly, the recipes presented in what the authors call a “merry mishmash holiday cookbook” must follow three rules: They must taste really good. They must use elements from different cultures. And they shouldn’t offend our grandparents. (Meaning, you will not see a recipe for gefilte ham. Also, many of the offerings have the added benefit of being Kosher.)

Here is a sampling of what you will find: Nosh like Mother’s Gefilte Goose, Judy’s Cheddar Cheese Gelt, Bubbie Ganoush, and Deck the Halls with Boughs of Challah. Brunch items including Lotsa Latkes, Good Cheer with a Schmear, and Green Eggs and Pastrami. And more: Rabbi Reuben’s Bread Pudding (Dad would have loved this), Kris Kringle Kugel, Kosher Italian Rainbow Cookies, Messhugga Nog Latte, and Bah Humbergers.

So, forget the old man’s disapproval: Your holidays — and your appreciation of your fellow humans — can and will be enhanced by embracing multiple traditions. Chrismukkah can show you the way – you can purchase the book, along with Chrismukkah-themed holiday cards and tchotchkes, directly from the Chrismukkah Web site. And who knows, perhaps inviting the disapproving to experience your blended holidays can serve to open their minds and hearts. Hey, even Ebenezer Scrooge finally found a clue.

This week’s recipes will include one of my favorite treats from Chrismukkah and one from my own multiculti kitchen. Enjoy! And we wish you Happy Holidays, Seasons Greetings and Merry Mazel Tov!

Deck the halls with lots of tchotchkes…

Fa la la la la la la la la.

‘Tis the season to eat latkes…

Fa la la la la la la L’Chaim!.

Judy’s Cheddar Cheese Gelt, from Chrismukkah

“Hanukkah gelt is the foil-wrapped chocolate loot that children wager when playing the dreidel game. Most trace gelt back to the 6th century when children were given gifts of money during Hanukkah family gatherings. Another theory is that gelt symbolizes the bags of coins, plunder, and assorted booty distributed as reward to the Maccabee soldiers after their victory over the Syrians. Since chocolate gelt is an established Hanukkah icon, we wanted to find an equivalent new food tradition for hrismukkah. We discovered that cheese gelt could complement Chrismukkah as naturally as Hillshire Farm cheese balls do Christmas.”

Ingredients

1 cup butter
2 cups flour
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. rosemary
1 pinch cayenne pepper

Procedures

Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse [or mix by hand] until dough forms into
a ball. Shape the dough into a log [1/4 inch wide] and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Chill at least two hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit/177 degrees Celsius and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Slice the log into 1/4-inch coins and place on baking sheet. Bake until
golden brown, 15-18 minutes. Cool and store in an airtight container. Makes 12 servings.

Nat’s Sweet-Potato Christmas Latkes

I serve these every Christmas morning and at our first-night-of-Hanukkah seder (this year, the Festival of Lights begins on Boxing Day, so yes, we’ll enjoy then two days in a row). My son simply can’t get enough of them, and whatever your persuasion, I bet you’ll love ’em too.

Ingredients

3 sweet potatoes, peeled and shredded
1 small onion, minced
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1-1/2 tbsps. brown sugar
3 tbsps. whole-wheat flour
1 tbsp. ground cloves
1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 cup and 2 tablespoons canola oil for frying

Procedures

Put the sweet potatoes into a colander. Squeeze out as much of the liquid from the potatoes as possible (using cheesecloth or a newly clean dish cloth can help). Do this a couple of times; you want to ensure that the spuds are as dry as you can get them. Place the potatoes in a large bowl. Add the minced onion, eggs, brown sugar, flour, and spices and mix thoroughly.

Heat canola oil in a heavy frying pan, taking care not to allow oil to become too hot — we don’t want it to burn. (If you use an electric skillet, heat it to 375 degrees Fahrenheit/190 degrees Celsius.)

Using clean hands, shape the potato mixture into 3- or 4-inch wide cakes. Fry the latkes in the hot oil, turning them when bubbles appear around the cakes’ edges (about 2-3 minutes). Both sides should be golden brown. Drain on paper towels, and serve hot with sour cream, honey, or whole-fruit preserves.

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