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Celebrating Hanukkah … when you’re not Jewish

LISTEN: Celebrating Hanukkah...when you're not Jewish and you don't believe in God

Hanukkah is here and, just like many Jewish people, Kent’s Mandelin Carlsen and her family will be lighting their menorah for eight nights. But there’s a difference between the Carlsens and others who celebrate the holiday.

“We’re not Jewish. We get that question a lot,” said Mandelin Carlsen.

So why is a non-Jewish family, with no Jewish people in their lives, celebrating Hanukkah?

For the Carlsens it started in 2013, when Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving. Mandelin was surfing the web when she came across an article about having themed conversations on each night of the Jewish holiday. Basically, extending the idea of giving thanks for eight days. And she liked that. So she decided she and her husband would try something new with their kids, who are now seven and three years old.

Hanukkah

Sebastian and Vivian Carlsen celebrating Hanukkah (Photo courtesy of the Carlsen family)

“I didn’t have a menorah so I got nine little candles,” Mandelin said. “Each night we would light them and think about the theme that we had for the night. One night it was family and other nights we talked about what it meant to have friends in our lives.”

She liked the peaceful tone so much, she incorporated the tradition into her family’s holiday season.

“I feel like it gives us time as a family, thinking quietly about things. The holidays can be really frenetic and lots of things are going on all the time. This is our time to think about what it means to be family, what it means to be together. Especially on the long nights of winter it brings a little bit of thoughtfulness to our lives. And quiet, which is the best part.”

I wondered what she did to keep her young children quiet on Hanukkah, since in my experience it hasn’t been a quiet, thoughtful holiday.

“I was asking my son, I said, ‘What do you like about it?’ He said, ‘I like it when we turn all the lights off and we watch the candles,'” Mandelin said. “And they will sit there and watch the candles for a good 20 minutes, just watching them. I just think that’s just amazing. They’re just fascinated.”

Celebrating non-Jewish Hanukkah

The Carlsens celebrate the holiday in their own way. For example, they don’t say the traditional prayers when they light the candles.

“I don’t speak Hebrew,” she said. “There’s also the issue that we’re not religious at all, we don’t believe in God. So praying doesn’t seem natural to us.”

Instead they read children’s Hanukkah books and discuss the story of Hanukkah.

“We don’t do gifts for Hanukkah,” she said. “We do gifts on Christmas only. Hanukkah is about lighting the candles and having stories and discussions.”

Some may wonder if it’s inappropriate for a non-Jewish family to celebrate Hanukkah.

“I do worry that Jewish people, or people who celebrate Hanukkah as part of their religion, that they might be offended that we celebrate Hanukkah in such a haphazard, flippant way,” Mandelin said. “But I hope they’re not. Because I do plan on talking more about the culture that goes along with Hanukkah and the struggles that Jewish people have had in the past and today. But it’s just not the right time for my kid right now.”

What do you think? Can anyone celebrate any holiday, no matter their religious affiliation? Personally, I’m just happy she’s teaching her kids about another culture and holiday, considering most adults I meet don’t know anything about Hanukkah.

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