Sat, Dec 24, 2005 - Page 16 News List

A confluence of festivals


Marked with festive foods, singing and merriment, Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations have much in common.


This year Jews and Christians celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas in the same week, and a museum in Berlin is using the coincidence to show how the two religious celebrations have evolved and even found touching points here and there.

The song that greets visitors to the Jewish Museum says a lot -- Bing Crosby crooning the familiar lyrics to White Christmas which were penned by the Jewish composer Irving Berlin.

To do research for the exhibition titled Weihnukka, museum associate Michal Friedlander spent last Christmas in New York where Jews and Christians are often well-versed in both traditions and "the shops make as much of a fuss of Hanukkah as they do of Christmas."

"They decorate their windows in red and blue, red for Christmas and blue for Hanukkah," she said.

"We wanted to make use of the very rare occasion that the two festivals fall within the same week this year to show where they come from and how they have changed."

Christmas shares with Hanukkah, or the eight-day feast of lights which begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, only the fact that it finds its roots in Jewish history.

To those who are strangers to the customs of Hanukkah in Berlin, where the Holocaust reduced a Jewish population of about 190,000 to 10,000 registered with the city's Jewish Community, the exhibition recalls that it celebrates the defeat by the Maccabees of the Syrian Antiochius IV in 165 BC and their recapture of Jerusalem.

It explains that every night one more of the eight candles in the menorah, a nine-arm candelabrum, should be lit from the one in the middle and that the prayer spoken at the same time celebrates the defeat of the powerful by the weak.

Spread over six halls, the exhibition features some 700 objects that have become linked to the two religious holidays and on two big screens, home videos show local families celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah.

In Berlin too, there has been a measure of cultural cross-pollination, Friedlander said.

"It has become quite common for Jewish families to give their children presents over Hanukkah because it is so close to Christmas," she said.

It is perhaps an echo of the commercialization of Christmas and one room at the exhibition is devoted to the wealth of products on sale around the celebrations.

Another part deals with how to overcome the so-called "December dilemma" and send out neutral, politically-correct seasonal greetings.

"A real American-type market has developed around Hanukkah," Friedlander said.

"Apart from sweets and the menorah which one finds in all different guises, the real trend of the year is a stuffed toy of the warrior Judah Maccabee, which is perhaps becoming the equivalent of Father Christmas for Jewish children."

She said she had noticed that New York's many mixed Jewish-Catholic couples have begun to combine Christmas and Hanukkah traditions.

"One finds Christmas trees decorated with objects normally symbolizing Hanukkah, like small menorahs."

The last feature in the exhibition is extracts from the US television shows Friends, South Park and Sex and the City where the characters discuss or celebrate Hanukkah, which runs until Jan. 29.

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