It’s a question that may pop into the minds of Jewish children at some point when they are little: Does Santa Claus deliver their Hanukkah presents?
The answer must be “no,” according to shopping-mall orthodoxy, since the cultural icon called Santa does his thing on Christmas Eve.
Hanukkah gifts have to come from somewhere else. And according to a daring new book for children, that predawn work is done by a Steampunk-styled Jewish hero named Hanukkah Harvie, who flies out of the Statue of Liberty in his Hanukkopter.
But that solution to the presents puzzle raises another tricky question: What happens when Christmas falls during Hanukkah and Santa Claus and Harvie show up at the same house? After all, a 2013 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that the intermarriage rate has hit 58 percent for all American Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews. Lots of children are growing up in homes that, to one degree or another, are interfaith.
“The reality, like it or not, is that there are a million-plus children that are doing this, who are trying to make sense out of Christmas and Hanukkah at the same time,” asked David Michael Slater, author of “Hanukkah Harvie vs. Santa Claus.”
“Do they have a story? What’s that like? ... I was trying to walk a fine line, while avoiding having to take a stand on all of these hot-button issues. I guess this book’s message isn’t really religious at all, but it’s about people who are trying to live together with some kind of tolerance.”
Hanukkah is already a complex and ironic holiday. This year’s eight-day “Festival of Lights” began at sundown on Dec. 12. The season’s symbol is a menorah with nine candles symbolizing a miracle -- tradition says that a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels liberated their temple from Greek oppressors. The center candle is used to light the other candles, with one new candle on each night.
This was once a simple season with simple pleasures. Some Jewish families sing Hanukkah songs, play dreidel games and use hot oil -- that oil symbol again -- to fry potato pancakes called latkes. Parents give children small gifts each night, such as chocolates wrapped in gold foil to resemble coins.
But Hanukkah kept getting bigger and bigger, evolving into the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday in American homes -- because of its calendar connection to the cultural rites that dominate December.
Thus, “Hanukkah Harvie vs. Santa Claus” imagines an “It. Was. On!” showdown, with Santa determined to win over interfaith children by bringing them taller and taller stacks of presents, with Harvie responding in kind.
Harvie tells the child at the heart of this story: “I just want to make sure you like Hanukkah better!” Santa responds: “I just want to make sure you like Christmas better!” Both are appalled when the girl says that her family celebrates “Chrismukkah.”
Slater stressed that he wasn’t trying to endorse “Chrismukkah,” a term once used in the teen-television drama “The O.C.” Religious Jews, in particular, are offended by any attempts to fuse two faiths that are in many ways doctrinally incompatible.
Meanwhile, the interfaith marriage tide keeps rising. In some interfaith homes, children are raised as Jews. In others, children are raised as Christians. A few parents try -- somehow -- to do both.
“I’m trying to see all of this through the eyes of a kid,” said Slater, a middle-school teacher in Reno, Nevada, who described himself as a “mostly cultural” Jew. His wife -- who grew up on a Christmas tree farm -- converted to Judaism.
“This book doesn’t try to teach what Hanukkah is and what that means in terms of religious observance, or anything. ... We see the family eating latkes and playing with a dreidel. There’s a menorah, but we don’t see a cross anywhere. For all I know, the kid in this story is being raised Jewish, while the dad is celebrating Christmas in some way.”
Slater paused, and then added: “Whatever people think about all of this, I don’t think this trend is going to stop. For lots of people, Chrismukkah is their reality this time of year. It is what it is.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)