Christmas Eve, beginning of Hanukkah converge

Mark Hicks

Saturday marks a doubly significant day for many of the faithful across Metro Detroit.


It’s Christmas Eve, which precedes a 24-hour period when observers worldwide commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ.

It’s also the start of Hanukkah: the eight-night Jewish holiday recognizing religious identity, recalling how a symbol central to the faith was reclaimed.

The convergence not often seen in modern times means Christians and Jews throughout the region are simultaneously gathering with family, hosting festivities, reflecting on their spirituality — and even bonding with each other.


Jasmine Hesano, right, of Bloomfield Township, and Owen Bahri, of Bloomfield Hills, both 2, sing, “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands” Friday at the Franklin Community Church Preschool Holiday Celebration.

“It’s a particularly good year for that sort of serendipitous occurrence to occur,” said Robert Bruttell, board chairman with the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. “I think that with this last election cycle often seeming quite divisive, the fact that the Jewish and Christian holiday comes and overlaps is a wonderful thing. It’s almost like the universe is coming and saying: ‘We ought to be noticing that we should be getting along and working together and here’s another opportunity.’ ”

Nowhere is that more evident this weekend than Mitzvah Day. On Sunday, Christmas Day, nearly 1,000 Jewish and Muslim volunteers are descending on about 50 sites to perform tasks such as packing and delivering meals; visiting seniors in nursing care facilities; presenting gifts to families in need, coordinators said.

Named after a Hebrew term referencing “good deeds” and presented by the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, the annual effort fills social service projects across the region, allowing others to celebrate Christmas.

Bonding and sparking outreach at such a time prompts participation, said David Kurzmann, executive director of the JCRC/AJC. “Service is part of Jewish tradition in terms of observance and practice and really the adherence to our faith. When you have an opportunity to do this sort of service project over the same time as the holiday, especially one that celebrates miracles and overcoming odds, it’s a special symbol. I don’t think that’s lost on people this time.”

Some also note a link to Hanukkah. Tradition holds that centuries ago, a band of followers in Israel known as the Maccabees sought freedom from Syrian rule that suppressed their customs and desecrated the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. They routed fighters and rededicated the site — during which a single day’s worth of lamp oil astonishingly lasted eight.


Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov stands in front of the Menorah as it is installed Thursday in Campus Martius. “We’re living in turbulent times, and Hanukkah brings ... an inspiring message of lighting up the darkness,” he said.

As Larry Imerman extends his Mitzvah Day tradition by helping out at a Salvation Army Harbor Light Center in Detroit with his wife, Miriam, he recognizes the significance.

Hanukkah “was always a holiday that commemorated freedom: of religion, the ability to worship God in any way you want,” he said. “Freedom requires people to invest in the community, and this is my little investment in the community that I live.”

Giving back also is driving interest among Muslims, who consider Sunday’s involvement part of “Ihsan,” which refers to expressing inner faith through action.

“Now more than ever, people are feeling they need to step up and do more than in previous years because of the political climate,” said Dr. Muzammil Ahmed, board chairman for the Michigan Muslim Community Council, a project partner. “It is a great opportunity for everyone to work together and see our underlying commonality.”

Also common are the observances for Christmas, when many churches of various denominations welcome guests to special services.

The historic Franklin Community Church offers two Christmas Eve services: one with a chancel choir and carols, then a late candlelight communion one. There’s also worship the next morning.

Longtime member Bill Rollo plans to attend Saturday with his wife Judy, reveling in the poinsettias, Nativity scenes, glittering Christmas trees and a pleasant recitation of “Silent Night” as they have for years.

“It’s just a beautiful service,” he said. “We get to see friends and family. The music is tremendous. The gospel story of Christ’s birth is given again and we always enjoy that.”

Leading up to the holiday, the church has focused on the seasonal theme, and this weekend the Rev. David Huseltine plans to share a message “emphasizing that Jesus was called Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’ And just affirming that even in this day and age, God still is present with us to give us hope and courage,” he said. “Jesus could understand the kind of things we are going through. That allows us to feel a connection to Christ and to our God.”

Spiritual connections also inform the rest of Hanukkah, which lasts through sundown on New Year’s Day.

On Tuesday, thousands are expected at Campus Martius in downtown Detroit for the sixth annual Menorah in the D hosted by The Shul-Chabad Lubavitch in West Bloomfield Township, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit, along with support from Quicken Loans and others.

The gathering features food, crafts, face painting, jugglers, interactive experiments and more, organizers said. But the centerpiece is the lighting of a 26-foot-tall steel and glass menorah.

That towering structure represents the candelabrum adorning many Jewish homes during the holiday also known as the Festival of Lights. Candles are lit each night as a potent reminder.

“We’re living in turbulent times, and Hanukkah brings a peaceful message and an inspiring message of lighting up the darkness,” said Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov of The Shul-Chabad Lubavitch. “We’re coming together as a community to light those candles and bring the message of hope and freedom to the world.”