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Merry Hanukkah, Happy Christmas For the first time since 1959, today is a special holiday for Jews and Christians alike

Here's a double-barreled greeting to cover a lot of religious territory today: Merry Christmas, and happy first night of Hanukkah.

For the first time since 1959, and only the fourth time in the past 100 years, the first day of Hanukkah and Christmas Day fall on the same date in the calendar.

While Christmas is always Dec. 25 on the Gregorian calendar, Hanukkah appears on different dates. This year, it's about a month later than usual because it's leap year in the Jewish calendar -- an extra 30-day month called Adar II was added in the spring.

"Hanukkah does not move around; it's all in one's perspective," says Rabbi Irwin A. Tanenbaum of Temple Beth Am in Amherst. "Hanukkah comes every year on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. I'm curious as to how Christmas came so early this year -- it almost never comes in Kislev!" he says, chuckling.

For most people, this curiosity of the calendar means very little. But for Jewish-Christian couples, especially those with children or stepchildren, the coincidence may call for some compromise.

Ellen Goldstein, marketing and community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo, has been married for 19 years to Mitch Flynn, who is Catholic. Goldstein was chair of the Interfaith Family Group at her temple for 10 years.

Working out rituals for religious holidays, especially for newly married interfaith couples, can be a challenge, she says. "It's work. Although we do not have a Christmas tree, we do have friends who have Christmas trees, and it's very important to respect your spouse's family tradition regardless of how you celebrate."

This year, like other years, she and her husband, along with Goldstein's mother, will have dinner with his parents on Christmas Day. "The next night, on the 26th, we're going to have the family Hanukkah celebration, with brisket and latkes," the traditional Hanukkah meal. The family will attend several other Hanukkah celebrations with friends over the eight days of the festival.

The latkes -- potato pancakes fried in oil -- are linked to Hanukkah because the oil represents the miracle of a small flask of lamp oil that provided light for eight days.

Barb Nuchereno of Williamsville, who was raised Jewish, married Lou Nuchereno, who is Catholic, 13 years ago.

Their three children, ages 10, 7 and 4, are being raised Jewish.

"Even though my husband agreed to raise the kids Jewish, I think it's easier said than done," says Nuchereno. "At Christmas time, he really wanted to do Christmas with them, the tree. He understood that it really wouldn't be a religious thing, because they're Jewish. But it's also a cultural thing. So we do put up a tree, we do the Christmas morning thing for them, and now that his mom is a little older, we actually host Christmas Day dinner for his family. We have them over."

With the first day of Hanukkah falling on Christmas Day this year, Nuchereno plans an Italian dinner for her husband's relatives, with latkes for appetizers. Then she and her children will light the candles on the menorah.

"This year, it's more of an exchange, because they're going to share what we do, too, which they normally don't," Nuchereno says.

The Nucherenos will gather with friends and relatives for a Hanukkah celebration on Dec. 26. "You have your choice of days -- the first day isn't necessarily more important than the last day," she says.

Does the presence of a Christmas tree in their home confuse the children?

"No, they really aren't confused. And I was a little defensive about it at first, and nervous. But you know what? They're not confused. They know who they are, they know what's what, and they're smarter than we give them credit for."

"Christmas is a much more important religious holiday for the Christian community than Hanukkah is for the Jewish community," says Goldstein. "It's not minor, but it's a celebration of a military victory that also means freedom, and that's really important for me."

Tanenbaum points out that Hanukkah "is considered a minor festival in the Jewish liturgical calendar. The proximity to Christmas has elevated Hanukkah beyond its more appropriate status on the calendar."

Tanenbaum hosted a discussion a few weeks ago titled "The December Dilemma." Most of those who attended, he said, asked questions like "What do we do with our gentile relatives? What should we do out of respect for our in-laws? And what should I do when somebody sends my Jewish children Christmas presents?"

In his discussion, Tanenbaum says, he stressed respect for other religious traditions.

"Recognizing the spiritual meaning (of Christmas) for our non-Jewish friends, relatives and neighbors is quite appropriate and proper," says Tanenbaum. "We might help them celebrate their special day called Christmas -- perhaps that means a gift."

However, he says, "The celebration for ourselves of another's practice is not appropriate. Respect doesn't mean becoming the other person; indeed respect is the opposite of that."

Since the two holidays normally fall on days that are far apart, says Tanenbaum, "If something came into our home, out of respect, it should not come on Christmas, it should come on Hanukkah."

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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