Chrismukkah, 3 Religions & Rugelach
It’s not often that I can cook a bunch of Jewish food and have it satisfy the needs of two holidays in two different religions on the same night. Such is the blessing this year of Chrismukkah: the intersection of Christmas and Hanukkah on the same nights. My family is a mixed faith and mixed race family...but not the usual Jewish/Christian combo.
My parents are Jewish on both sides, but I grew up celebrating xmas through the 80’s at my dad’s house because my stepmother was Christian (but not in any way religious), so the holiday was all about gingerbread houses, decorating the tree, and waking up to presents that magically appeared in beautiful piles. My dad, a Jew who was fond of cooking hams and lobsters the size of our bath tub, often made a cardboard and tin foil Jewish Star of David for the top of the very tall tree, and comically referred to it as a "Hanukkah Bush". He would promptly headed off to make a huge roast beef, baked stuffed potatoes and Yorkshire pudding, a deliciously goyish meal if you ever saw one, to feed the mobs of my stepmother’s family that would come over late on Christmas day. Our menorah here was some candles melted onto a brick leftover from the patio my dad built. I’m not sure candles got lit except for the Thursday night and weekend that my sister and I joined the house over Hanukkah, and there may have been a small gift given on one night, but we were all happy to keep the thrill of presents for the xmas morning piles.
On my mom’s side of the family, where I lived more days out of the week, and felt deeply connected to my grandparents who were holocaust survivors who had helped lead the largest escape from a Nazi death camp ever, well, it was latkes all the way. We’d sit at the dining room table peeking over to the pile of gifts in the living room, while enjoying crisp golden potato latkes, apple sauce, sour cream, a big bowl of salad, and I have no idea what else, because all I remember was the latkes, apple sauce, the gifts and the candles. A beautiful swooping brass menorah with flames glowing, a 1970’s modern-ish wood version and a stone menorah with roughly chiseled depictions of people woefully carrying the burden of the candle, the perfect Jewish holiday mix of joy and sorrow. These nights were warm and festive and we got to hear phrases thrown around in Yiddish, Dutch and our mom’s rare singing with a perfect Hebrew accent reminding us of our family’s immigration story.
Fast forward to today, my children know the Hebrew blessings for the candles, but they also know how to give offerings and sing to the Orisa, divinities in the Yoruba tradition, the West African indigenous religion my husband and I have both practiced for over 25 years. It is a peaceful and simpatico merging of two earth-based religions that works well for us, (and a number of other religiously and racially mixed families we know). You’d think that would be enough for one home, however Christmas is never to be upstaged in the USA, and honestly I don’t really mind as long as the tree and stockings are not in my house. While my husband was raised with political activism and organizing as the household faith, his extended family celebrated Christmas through the AME church on his dad’s side or with piles of Swedish cookies, lingonberries and korv sausage on his mom’s. Which means that Christmas as a festival lives on in my family where we either travel to Brooklyn to see grandma PJ or walk around the corner to auntie’s house, decorate the tree, eat cardamom bread, Swedish cheeses, pickled veggies and is accordance with Nordic tradition, tin upon tin of cookies.
Now, here is where things get good, and where this year especially, the merging of holidays inspires. Whether it’s my Dutch roots or my family’s response to historical trauma, there is a pervasive sweet tooth that runs thick through our veins. So, a holiday (of any culture) that seems to revolve around endless tins of cookies is just about the most appealing thing I can think of and easily gets me in the spirit to celebrate this holiday that both isn’t, and sort of is now mine.
A cookie that I love dearly but rarely make, especially for Christmas, is rugelach. This European Jewish treat, when made right is a chewy, buttery bundle of golden dough, stuffed with jam, cinnamon and finely chopped walnuts. They bake into delectable nuggets that have me savoring my heritage with each bite. I don’t make them often because in addition to being a sticky mess of dough that is a lot of work to handle, they are essentially a block of cream cheese and two sticks of butter with only enough flour and a touch of sugar added to hold them together. Not that I mind a little butter (my daughter and sister have declared themselves members of the “Butter Club”), but when there are rugelach around, the flavors and nostalgia make them impossible for me to stop eating.
This year, I will happily be filling a number of tins with rugelach, from a recipe I learned at Margaret Palca Bakes, the first professional bakery I ever worked in, in Brooklyn. With the first night of Hanukkah falling on Christmas eve, I think we will be celebrating Chrismukkah by lighting our menorah near the glow of the xmas tree at our Auntie’s house and toasting the night with rugelach pulled straight out of a Christmas cookie tin.
Happy Holidays and Solstice to all of you...
I hope that this time is full of good food, love, and joy. xo Tagan