As a child, Steven David Elliot never sat on Santa’s knee.
“I never wanted to, either,” says Elliot, a Raleigh transplant from Miami who earned a degree in Jewish studies and briefly considered attending seminary to become a rabbi. “At the time, I didn’t identify with any Christmas traditions and my parents were adamantly against it.”
As a parent himself, however, Elliot’s views have softened. After moving here about nine years ago to work as a real estate broker and networking event planner, he and his ex-wife decided they did not want their daughter to be the one to declare, “There’s no such thing as Santa.”
“So much of Christmas has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with joy,” says Elliot, who has since remarried and continues to enjoy both holidays and the foods associated with them, including honeybaked ham. His nay-saying father has even donned a red suit and played Santa for neighborhood children. “I think it’s enriching to experience other cultures. Anyway, it’s practically a national holiday. That’s how we approach it.”
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It’s an approach that appeals to a number of interfaith households in the Triangle, particularly those who are adding twinkling Christmas lights to a lifetime of Hanukkah candle-lighting rituals. Making the choice to embrace the more playful aspects of both holidays allows them to have their latkes and eat their fair share of reindeer cookies, too.
The opportunity to enjoy the best of both worlds is rarely so tempting as it is this year. Because the Jewish calendar is based on cycles of the moon, so-called Festival of Lights seems fluid. Sometimes the eight-night celebration, which commemorates the rededication of Jerusalem’s holy temple with a day’s supply of oil that miraculously burned for eight days, starts as early as Thanksgiving. This year, the first night coincides with Christmas Eve, a rare occasion that will beckon some families to live the Chrismukkah dream.
“We do a mish-mash of both, focusing more on what we share than what is different,” says April McGreger, who grew up celebrating Christmas in Mississippi but primarily observes Hanukkah in the Hillsborough home she shares with husband Phil Blank and their 6-year-old son, Moe. They keep Christmas low key and are ready for the annual defense of why Santa brings more gifts to family in Mississippi while completely ignoring the chimneys of other relatives.
Noting that fried foods are symbolic of the long-burning oil, McGreger makes classic Southern fried chicken for their traditional first-night holiday dinner. At a “halfsies” party they have each year with other interfaith families, she involves the children in making sufganiyot, which are round, jelly-filled fried donuts. The founder of the award-winning Farmer’s Daughter Brand pickles and preserves relies on her own kid-friendly strawberry and blueberry jams for the filling.
McGreger also makes rugelach, little pastries filled traditionally filled with sugared nuts, chocolate or jam. Growing up in Philadelphia, her husband knew them by the Yiddish term schnecken – or snails, referring to their rolled shape. “Now, in my family’s Christmas cookie baking, they always want to know if I’m bringing the schnecken,” she says.
After he watches his 10-year-old stepdaughter tear open gifts beside their tree on Christmas morning, Jake Finkelstein of Durham will tuck into the same Jewish-style brunch he’s savored since childhood. While he laments the lack of delis that were commonplace in suburban Philadelphia, he’ll set an abundant table with bagels, lox, cream cheese, whitefish spread and chopped herring.
Like many dual observers, Finkelstein first observed Hanukkah with his family, later getting the bump to include Santa after his parents divorced. “A lot of activities were built around me being happy as a kid,” he says. “Christmas happened to be one of them.”
Finkelstein remembers being totally committed to the Santa story and thinking that everyone celebrated both holidays. “But I did recognize that Christmas, for us, was more about pageantry and gifts,” says Finkelstein, who runs a Durham marketing and advertising agency. “How can you compete with latkes and brisket and braised carrots? I think of it as similar to Thanksgiving, a holiday where you eat and talk.”
At least one night during Hanukkah, Finkelstein plans to serve matzo ball soup, a time-honored recipe credited to his late grandmother. “God rest her soul,” he says when asked for the recipe, “but she’d kill me if you published it.”
The matzo ball soup made by Cary’s Norma Kessler is anything but traditional. Her husband, Paul, proudly boasts that it became one of the most requested recipes from a potluck dinner a few years ago at Raleigh’s Temple Beth Or.
“People still ask for it,” he says of the recipe. “The idea of the dinner was to tweak an old family recipe in ways that are meaningful to you today. Adding jalapeno, cumin and Mexican oregano was a nod to Norma’s childhood in Mexico City, and it’s special to me today to see our daughter help to make the matzo balls.”
Arielle, 10, is a frequent helper in her mother’s kitchen. Norma, who works at a commercial bakery in Morrisville and has a side business, Sweet Arielle’s Bakery, is especially keen on teaching her to bake.
“In addition to decorating Christmas cookies, we’re going to make canelitas, little cinnamon wafers I loved as a child, from Fany Gerson’s “My Sweet Mexico,” says Norma Kessler. “We choose to have a traditional Jewish household, where Arielle has learned to say the blessings over the candles. But we also choose for her to not feel left out of traditions her friends enjoy. It’s fun to make our home a place that welcomes both.”
Reach Lucas at email@example.com.
Norma’s Mexican Matzo Ball Soup
3 quarts water
1 whole chicken (3 to 3-1/2 pounds)
2 medium white onions, quartered
2 garlic cloves
2 medium carrots, peeled
4 tablespoons kosher or sea salt, divided
5 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of mint
1 cup matzo ball mix (or two 2-ounce packages)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 teaspoons crushed Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon coriander
1-1/2 teaspoons cumin
4 large eggs
8 tablespoons canola or safflower oil
2 tablespoons sparkling water
For the soup, combine water, chicken, onions, garlic, carrots, 2 1/2 tablespoons salt, peppercorns and bay leaves in a large stock pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off any foam that comes to surface. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer. After 15 minutes, add mint, cover and continue simmering about 15 to 20 minutes or until chicken is tender and cooked.
Remove the chicken to a plate and set aside to cool. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred to make 3 to 4 cups, reserving any excess for another use. Set aside.
Uncover pot and allow the stock to cool for 20 minutes. Pour the stock through a strainer and discard boiled vegetables except the carrots. Slice carrots and add them and shredded chicken to the soup.
To make the matzo balls, combine the matzo ball mix with white pepper, oregano, coriander, cumin and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. In another small bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the oil. Fold the beaten eggs into the matzo ball mixture with a rubber spatula. Add the sparkling water and mix until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
When ready to cook the matzo balls, bring about 3 quarts water and remaining salt to a rolling boil in a large pot over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and keep at a steady simmer. With wet hands, shape the matzo ball mix into 1- to-1-1-/2-inch balls and gently drop them into the water. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, until the matzo balls are completely cooked and have puffed up. Remove with a slotted spoon, transferring one or two per bowl of warmed soup. Served with finely chopped white onion and jalapeno, lime wedges, cubed avocado and chopped cilantro.
Yield: 8-10 servings