Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah!

hayley mcdonnell life lessons the retreat Dec 01, 2020

By Hayley McDonnell

Christmas, there I’ve said it…but before that, let us take a look at Hanukkah. As Christmas in our house is remembered and acknowledged in the usual traditional ways according to Western values, I always make sure we spend time as a family together at one Christian service at least.

These services serve as a cultural reference for our children irrespective of what they believe in, as evidenced through the questions my own children ask me, there is a definite interest in the deeper meanings found within this festival. Whatever your beliefs at this time of year, the thought that is pushed to the forefront of our minds is family.  The typical question, ‘Who are you spending Christmas Day with?’ is a favourite, and has been debated here too as we find ourselves in the middle of the Venn family diagram trying to placate a multitude of relatives and expectations. This question has pertinence this time around for obvious reasons.

The familiar exchange of Christmas cards is a mainstay of Western culture and is a tradition dating back to 1843. The first secular cards, sent by Henry Cole and later sold to raise a schilling each, had a secular image on them of families drinking wine, which was both unusual and controversial at the time. Contrast this secular image with the even earlier record of a Christmas card sent to James 1 and his son, Henry Frederick, in 1611. The words received were, ‘A greeting on the birthday of the Sacred King, to the most worshipful and energetic lord and most eminent James, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of the true faith, with a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612.’ 

Secular and nativity scenes were familiar sights in homes, shops and on cards. This is echoed by the Christmas carols that are steeped in British culture, all reminding us of the Christian messages which underpin Western society. One such carol is ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ from 1872 and is based on a poem penned by Christina Rosetti.

In any case, its very title is apt because of the season we are in and the weather experienced at this time of year. In verse one, Rossetti describes the physical circumstances of the Incarnation in Bethlehem. In verse two, she contrasts Christ's first and second coming. The third verse focuses on Christ's birth and describes the simple surroundings of a humble stable with animals present. Rossetti achieves another contrast in the fourth verse, this time between angels watching over Christ's birth with Mary's ability to render Jesus physical affection. The final verse shifts the description to a more introspective thought process. Rosetti was noticeably clear in her choice of words to inform and educate the Christians of the late 1800s when Britain was overt in its religious beliefs.

Whilst you are in the midst of Christmas celebrations, here a few facts to muse over; Christmas is essentially two words joined together, Christ = Jesus the saviour according to Christian theology, and mass = the name given to the service to worship the Christ. So, does this mean anything you claim to be doing in the name of Christmas actually reveals how you are worshipping Christ?  

The theme of families is not forgotten with the Jewish members of our community who come together to celebrate the festival of Hanukkah. This festival finds its origins in the books First Maccabee and Second Maccabee. It can often be referred to as the Jewish festival of lights, as during the 8 days of Hanukkah a candle is lit in the hanukkiyah, a nine-branched special candelabrum. The word Hanukkah can mean dedication; for Jewish people this means a dedication to God. This festival remembers, in particular, the re-dedication of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Gifts are given to the children on each of the eight days with Orthodox Jews choosing Jewish related gifts to give and are, therefore, received in return. Members of the Reform community choose to put a more secular spin on their gift giving ideas. There is no expectation to give or receive Hanukkah cards but if you choose to send greetings in the form of a card, no one will be offended. Similarly, if you choose to acknowledge the festival with a simple greeting, there will be appreciation that you have chosen to acknowledge this special time. 

In recent months I have been more and more aware of the impact that food has on our mindset, well-being and general enjoyment of life. To this end, I have developed a strong interest in correlating festivals and events with the food that is eaten at this time, with either cultural references or with religious symbolism. Apart from its necessity, one of the pleasures of food is sharing meals with others, lending itself to conversation and collaboration; both features are prevalent with our worldwide mission to focus on our similarities, not our differences. In brief, typical foods eaten at Hanukkah are those cooked in oil - like doughnuts or latkes - and Christmas is a time of overindulgence in all spheres, not just in food, but with a special emphasis on Christmas dinner itself. There are cultural references and symbolism in so many of the food choices we simply enjoy.

Without the Jewish festival of Hanukkah there would be no Christmas. If Antiochus had gained the control he wanted over the Jewish people, there would be no recognisable Jewish culture for the Messiah to be born into. Both religious theologies share ‘saving’ or ‘saviour’ for adherents of either faith, and both preserve the need to acknowledge these events, not in solitary, but with the fellowship of others.

The long-term benefits of dialogue are improved relations and cooperation in the community, often enabling further development through social and political action. This greater understanding of our own thoughts coupled with the discovery of different or similar points of view enhance collaboration opportunities with all involved. Dialogue brings slow and lasting results, change from within the community itself and it works towards finding purposeful solutions.

Your collaboration and discussion prompts are found here. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, so reach out to me and share.

Social – Who will you be spending ‘December’ events with? Is there anyone else you can reach out to this year, perhaps someone you have been meaning to get in touch with, spending time doing activities that are not part of your normal traditions?

Moral – Do you feel pressure from the media to give during this time of year? What type of giving do you prefer - tangible gifts or gifts of time, love and community collaboration? Can we have both?

Spiritual – What do you need saving from? What needs to be saved? What can you do to help?

Cultural – Acknowledge the cultural references in the food that you eat and try something new and different. 


Hayley McDonnell is a Personal Development/SMSC consultant and author intent on bridging the gap between countries, cultures, customs and ultimately people with “Global Collaboration” Her aim is to make our world feel smaller by connecting with our similarities and embracing our differences. She loves to travel and meet new people from different backgrounds, countries and cultures. You can find out more about Hayley here.


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