Holiday Traditions – Chanukah

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I’ve written recently about how I celebrated Chanukah as a child and growing up. I’ve included two of those links below. Some of those traditions I’ve brought to my own family, but because of our interfaithness I’ve added and tweaked some of them over the years.

In some ways it was easier to celebrate Jewish holidays while growing up Jewish in primarily Jewish neighborhood. In those early, formative years, our neighbors were mostly Jewish, and so we all celebrated the same things. It wasn’t until moving at the end of fifth grade that my new friends celebrated something different. I don’t even recall if the schools were closed on Christmas before; I imagine they must have been, but  it wasn’t until my own kids were young that I realized that schools didn’t close for the High Holy Days. I would keep my own kids home, and the only time there was a dispute with the school was when my middle son went to kindergarten and the first day of school was to be on Rosh Hashanah. I discovered another Jewish family and I joined them at the Board of Education meeting to change the first day of school. We did. But it was met with a plethora of excuses on why they should not change the status quo. It was demoralizing and it instilled in me a more vocal advocacy than I’d had before.

As the only Jewish family in our schools or the only Jewish teacher when I taught, it’s fallen to me to have to explain Chanukah, and unfortunately the expectation is usually how it fits into Christmas, which of course, it doesn’t. It would even be doubtful if Jesus observed/celebrated Chanukah; It’s always been considered a minor holiday.

The problem with most “public” Jewish holidays is that they’re based on wars and overcoming oppression. After its destruction, the temple needed to be rededicated with holy oil. There was only enough for one day, but the oil burned for eight days, and lasted until a new supply of oil could be brought from a town further away. That is why we fry things in oil for Chanukah, although the funny thing in our family is that I make latkes, potato pancakes more during Passover than during Chanukah. I don’t make the jelly doughnuts, but I do try to make the latkes. During the worst of my depression, I bought frozen ones and baked them, and they weren’t that bad, but still, they weren’t the same.

While Christmas in America is the epitome of secularism with Santa and trees and jingle bells complete with singing dogs, there are no woodland creatures lighting a menorah or spinning a dreidl. At least not when I was little. There aren’t brightly colored gifts sitting under a flaming candelabra. We had a little, humble pile of eight gifts to choose from, one for each night after lighting the candles. I was thrilled, when I was a preschool teacher, to finally find the books of Jane Breskin Zalben with a bear family celebrating Chanukah, lambs and cute other animals observing Yom Kippur. I read these to my preschool students and to my own children, and it was just what my own childhood was lacking in woodland creatures.

With my husband growing up Catholic, we always celebrated Christmas and Easter. We’ve always had a tree with ornaments, but we also had a menorah, electric and candlelit, latkes, dreidls, and gelt. All the kids can understand chocolate and spinning tops.

As my kids were born and growing up, we’ve done a variety of different things for Chanukah depending on their ages and our money situation at the time.

We did do eight gifts one year; small gifts like pencils and stickers, perhaps one larger gift but not too big since we also celebrated Christmas.

We have tried to do one big gift for the first night of Chanukah and fry latkes the second night, but if Chanukah is too close to Christmas, we’ll opt for a smaller Chanukah.

The last few years it’s been simply a new dreidl and mesh bag of gelt, chocolate coins wrapped in gold.

What we always do is light the menorah. We light two: one electric with the turn of the bulb until it brightens, and one lit by candles. My mother always lit our candle menorah, which I still use today, on a sheet of aluminum foil on the dining room table. We’ve done that, but now I have a metal tray that we use expressly for the menorah. The electric menorah is kept in the window. When I was growing up you could always tell who celebrated Chanukah and who celebrated Christmas by which lights were lit in and on their house.

The electric menorah. (c)2015-2016

On occasion we’ll use special Chanukah paper plates or napkins. I have a dreidl shaped pot holder.
In our family, we have an additional tradition: my mother died twelve years ago on the first night of Chanukah, so we always light her yartzeit candle, her memorial candle, before we light the menorah. I think she did it on purpose since the Jewish calendar changes yearly and it’s not always easy to remember the yartzeit date (I have to look up my father’s every year), but being the first night of Chanukah, it can never be forgotten.

I’ve seen some interfaith families combining their celebrations. My philosophy is each family should do whatever works for them. The holidays should really be a no judgment zone. I recently saw a menorah Christmas ornament Personally, I am completely against Jewish ornaments on Christmas trees, well, on my Christmas tree. My feeling is that by combining them, it dilutes the meaning of both holidays. I prefer to celebrate them side by side and equally so our kids can see the importance of both.

Last year, Chanukah was during Thanksgiving. Every few years, Chanukah falls on my birthday in early December.

This year, the first night falls on Christmas Eve, so we’ll combine our Christmas Eve traditions with our Chanukah ones because of the timing.

While my kids were in elementary school, we would usually bring in dreidls, gelt and latkes for their classes. I am often asked to read an appropriate holiday book, and answer some questions about Chanukah.

All in all, I think we observe and celebrate the true meaning of Chanukah and try to remember back to those ancient times when the eternal light remained eternal through the miracle we call the Festival of Lights. With all families and their traditions, things change over the years, but many of the things we loved as children still manage to come to the fore when we introduce our kids to our rituals and traditions. from that, they’ll take their own memories of family holidays and make them their own in time.

More light is never a bad thing.

Happy Chanukah!


Other Chanukah Reflections and Links:

I Remember…Chanukah

50-45 – Chanukah

How Latkes Took Over Your Hanukkah Table – and How to Get out of that Rut (Washington Post)

How often does the first night of Hanukkah fall on Christmas?

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