A Hanukkah Meal

Last night we celebrated Hanukkah over a special meal. My husband came home with a small chicken , 2 parsnips and a bag of potatoes. He threw the chicken in the stock pot along with some onions, celery and carrots and we savored the salty aroma for the next couple of hours. Earlier in the day I had prepared applesauce out of the last of our hand-picked apples from the orchard. I boiled them, ran them through the food mill and added cinnamon, the smell of which still lingered in the kitchen. The combination of chicken, herbs and spices made our mouths water in anticipation of our favorite Hanukkah meal.

While the soup was cooking, my husband grated the potatoes and parsnips, which he would fry in oil and serve as latkes. When the broth was ready, he added matzah balls and served us each a hearty bowl of chicken soup.      It would not feel like Hanukkah without this traditional first course. Before we dug in, we lit the menorah- this time choosing the one my daughter had painted when she was little. Ahh, the memories… 

After the soup was finished, we threw some dreidels and gelt (chocolate candy) on the table for a few rounds while the latkes were frying in the pan. At first we happily sang the dreidel song each time someone spun it, but it quickly became too repetetive and drove my daughter crazy so we focused on competing to win all the gelt (Gimel).

Finally the latkes were ready. Their salty, crisp coating smelled so good we could hardly wait. We served them with a large scoop of sweet applesauce.     MMmmmm…it doesn’t get much better than this. Happy Hanukkah!

Balancing Traditions in an Interfaith Family

Last night was the first night of Hanukkah. It was a busy day, so we didn’t have time for a full-blown celebration; but we did gather in the kitchen to light the first candles of the 8 night holiday tradition. The kids laughed at the hand-painted menorah one of them had made at a very young age and were happy to sing while we lit the lights.

Ever since they were little, my husband and I have tried to find the right balance between his Jewish rituals and my Christian traditions. We bought a combination of holiday story books,  including Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Magic Dreidels. We even had one that was about an interfaith family celebration, Light the Lights.  I found an unbreakable Nativity set which the kids could play with alongside the toy dreidels.

I took them to a paint your own pottery studio so they could each paint a personal menorah. The year my son painted his, my daughter made a Santa candy dish.  We also have a special Christmas tree ritual  (described in an earlier post The Perfect Christmas Tree) I described our Christmas ritual.

Our first ornaments as a couple trying to balance traditions

We often light our menorah in the same room as our tree, so we have all kinds of holiday lights burning. We hang our stockings by the fireplace and decorate our table with a menorah as well as a wreath.

All of these rituals seem to stand on their own without diminishing the importance of any other. The one major difference though, is the lack of Hanukkah music. Singing Christmas carols was (and still is) my favorite part of the holiday. I know I complained about hearing Christmas music after Halloween, but lately I have been listening to it regularly, even singing along when the kids aren’t in earshot. There are so many great Christmas songs and I wanted to balance them with some comparable Hanukkah music. I did find a few cds, but there were only a few catchy songs that you could sing along with.

How can you compare kids songs to Handel's masterpiece?

The rest were either in Hebrew or were spoofs of Christmas songs. You could tell the songs were created just to appease Jewish parents; so I don’t even try matching them anymore. We just commit ourselves to Christmas carols.

The biggest challenge to finding balance, though has been gift-giving. At first, we tried to follow the childhood traditions of each of us. My husband had gotten one present a night, with one of them being a major gift; neither he nor his brothers received their big gift on the same night, so it was always a surprise.  I, of course, had gotten all my presents at once on Christmas morning, still in my pajamas while my parents sipped coffee to wake up at that hour. By the time we went through this painstaking routine twice , we realized that this was overkill and we had to change things.

Unless you are Jewish, you probably don’t realize that Hanukkah is not a very important holiday and that it has only gained recognition because it falls at the same time of year as Christmas. Gifts were really only added to make Hanukkah more child-friendly; it is actually a celebration of a Jewish victory in a war against the Greeks and a reconsecration of a holy temple with a miraculous supply of oil. Taking this historical information into account led us to drop the gift giving, except for some little tokens- candy, an iTunes card, dreidels. While the kids still receive Hanukkah gifts from their grandparents and aunt, we focus on lighting the menorah, playing a rousing dreidel competition and enjoying the traditional meal of latkes (more on this tomorrow).

Tonight we will have a big meal while we light our menorah and in a few days we will head to my sister’s house for our Christmas celebration. It is all a matter of balance, complex but meaningful; loaded with traditions that have been pared down to the most meaningful ones. The good news is that even though the kids really look forward to the Christmas gifts, they seem to appreciate the significance of all the rituals we have chosen to follow. I guess that means we have found a good mix. 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Winter Solstice is on Thursday. The signs of the season are here; well, except for the snow. I was out walking in the cold, reflecting on how different everything looks without the beautiful and protective covering of the deciduous foliage. The trees are bare. Their long spiky branches and limbs reach up to the sky, creating a diffused pattern to the sunlight that penetrates the now wide-open canopy. The underbrush are bare as well and the grasses and ferns have shrivelled and dried. It is possible to see things that were previously camouflaged by the plants. Some are hidden gems that only now are revealed, like the elusive birds’ nests. But others reveal the damage done by some of the violent storms this summer. And then there are the grotesque reminders of how wasteful and callous humans can be, casually tossing trash into the woods. I brought my camera along to point out the good, the bad and the ugly.

First the Good.   The cold weather has caused ice crystals to form, creating a more protective covering of the low lying wetlands where the Spring Peepers’ eggs lie dormant until April.

I figured out where the Blue Jays and Crows were hiding out all summer.

Now the Bad.

This closer examination of the woods, allowed me to see how much damage had been done by recent stormy weather.

Broken limbs from Tropical Storm Irene

And finally, The Ugly. 

Marlboros, Anyone?

Need a spare tire?


Daughterly Advice

Last week I got a phone call from my father. He had recently installed an electric fence to keep his dog from running out onto the golf course. Even though they had followed the training protocol by posting flags around the property for a time before turning on the power, Buster had already been shocked twice when chasing squirrels. Dad was very distressed because now the dog did not like to go outside. We would never dream of shocking our children to teach them lessons (maybe we would like to, but we know it would be wrong) so why do we train our dogs this way?

The main reason is because children can understand concepts of danger- getting lost, or hit by a car if they stray into the road. Dogs need to learn about danger differently. It may sound cruel to let them get shocked for crossing a boundary, but it is better than letting them get injured. Most dogs will learn quickly from this experience and then will be perfectly fine staying in their yard. My father is one of the kindest people I know.  I could tell from his voice that he really felt terrible that Buster had gotten shocked, as if it was a horrible life-altering experience.  I knew Dad needed coaxing more than his dog did.

I tried to give him calm support and reassurance. My own dogs have been trained, with only a few corrections. They still love chasing squirrels in the yard, but they know when to stop. I have peace of mind in knowing I don’t have to walk outside with them in the rain or snow. I told my father to stick with the training, persuading him that it probably wouldn’t happen more than a couple of times; Buster is very intelligent. I also suggested that my father bring out treats for his dog and feed them to him in the yard. This could erase his negative association of being outside and Dad could use the treats to call his dog back from the flagged area as part of the training.

At the end of our phone call, I could tell that Dad was still worried but was at least more optimistic about the outcome. I am happy to report that within a week, Buster is a well-trained dog and is quite happy to search for bones in his yard, rather than pursue squirrels onto the golf course.  As for Dad, he is much happier too, knowing his dog is not going to run down the fairway chasing golfers. And for me, when I think back to all the times I have turned to Dad for advice and support, I am glad that I was able to return the favor.

Holiday Greetings!

English: s

Image via Wikipedia

With 10 days left until Christmas, one of my favorite rituals is beginning to take place. Almost every day when I walk to my mailbox, I find a couple of greeting cards! I can hardly wait to go inside and open them. I love seeing who addressed them to me and think about when I last spoke with them on my way in. Sometimes I am too busy to open them immediately. I prefer to read them when I have a few quiet minutes to appreciate their photos and hear what they have been up to during the past year.

Most of us are at the point where we write annual family newsletters to include with our cards, which are usually composed of family pictures. I enjoy hearing what my friends and their children, parents or pets have been doing. Every year, I resolve to try harder to keep in touch- on a regular basis, not just once a year. But then a few months go by, and I don’t feel like there is a newsworthy event to report or I find other excuses why not to pick up the phone and call.

This year I am including my email address with the letter and hope that people will send theirs as well. What I would really like to do is send a handwritten card via “snail” mail; but somehow I just never seem to get around to it. Well, hopefully I will get my holiday cards out in the mail tomorrow and then I will make my resolution for 2012. Maybe this year I can hold myself to it.

The Perfect Christmas Tree

Saturday was the perfect day to go Christmas Tree cutting. A crisp 35 afternoon with mostly sunny skies called us on our search. The kids grumbled at first, but the possibility of being left behind and not having a say in the choice of our tree overcame their lethargy. We headed out to our local tree farm, which we have visited for the last 4 years having discovered they have the most beautiful firs in the area. Of course, I had anticipated that we would need gloves and handed them out upon arrival. The kids gave me sheepish grins, but were happy to not have to keep their hands in their pockets. 

There was a light snow covering on the ground, which made our quest much more pleasing than walking through the mud of past years. We started walking toward the outer edge of the field, away from the other families also searching for the perfect tree. Fortunately there were so many to choose from, that there was no reason for competition. In fact, the only contest there was, was which kid could find the better tree.

It took less than 10 minutes to find one that we could all agree upon. Thankfully, they do recognize when it is not worth taking a stand, just for the sake of winning. The cold air probably helped. A nearby family had just claimed their tree and offered us a hand saw so we didn’t have to wait for the tractor to come around. My husband got down on the ground  while the kids supported the tree. I, of course, had the important job of capturing photos.      

They gave it a good try, but admitted defeat when the tractor came by.              The owners started up their chain saw       and the tree was toppled in seconds.      

They loaded it onto the tractor and then onto our car.           On the drive home, we chattered excitedly about how we would decorate it this year. The kids speculated on what their special ornament might be.

Special ornaments have been a family tradition since I was a baby. I have a collection of over 20 ornaments, ranging from souvenirs of places I visited, to symbolic ornaments for accomplishments of the year. Once I had my own children, the tradition began again. They have ornaments commemorating their favorite sports (soccer or gymnastics), teams (Red Sox), or trips we have taken.    This year, they each received a wooden donkey which we had purchased in Santorini after they rode the donkeys down from the top.

We started by stringing the lights, trying to create a uniform pattern and then added chains of glittery beads which gave a traditional look to the tree.    The old family ornaments were carefully placed and then the child or dog-proof plastic ones were hung near the bottom- a good thing since Cooper quickly batted a silver snowman to the ground. Then the kids claimed an area of the floor or couch to spread out their special collection. It was wonderful to see how they took the time to reflect on each one and remember why it had been given. My daughter even had hers lined up by year so she knew how old she was at each season.

The last decoration to adorn the tree was the hand crafted angel for the top, lovingly sewn by my aunt and given to me long ago she sits on the highest point and smiles at us during the Christmas holidays.         Is it the most beautiful tree? Would it pass the criticism of people with an eye for design? No and no; but my daughter did not make any negative remarks, probably because she knew they wouldn’t change the outcome but also because she gets how special our tree is and how many family treasures and priceless memories it holds. Now that is a wonderful tradition to uphold.

What Can We Do?

Yesterday, when I should have been writing a cheery holiday post, I instead wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Albany Times Union. They had printed a recent headline in the business section which sent chills up my spine. At the risk of plagiarizing myself, I’ll give you a recap.

The article was about  Amazon’s promotion of a new app, Price Check, which allows customers to go into a store, examine the merchandise and then scan the barcode into their smart phone- directly into Amazon’s website, where they can order the same item at a cheaper price than the actual store offers. When I mentioned this app to my teenage children, who love their apps, even they recognized the problems this could cause. They said this qualified as “cheating”. While I explained the app was not illegal, they insisted there was something not fair about it- kind of like using a calculator on a math exam.

In today’s economic crisis, everyone is trying to find ways to save money. But now is not the time to fall into the trap of what is good in the short run, ignoring that it could be devastating for the long term. The Occupy protesters have demonstrated the extreme differences in income between the rich and poor and the need for a more balanced economy. I am not sure how much they can accomplish other than to raise awareness. I do have a suggestion for what we can do as individuals, though. If we have the funds for discretionary spending, we should be mindful as to how and where we make our purchases. Instead of buying online and sending our money to a few big corporations, we should keep our money local and not even consider using Amazon’s app.

By using the power of our wallets, we can make a difference in the success of our local businesses, which also provide jobs in the area. We can not allow a few companies to grow so large that they monopolize our choices by eliminating the competition. With the new year ahead, I suggest we all make a resolution to support our local businesses as much as possible. Even if their products are slightly more expensive, it is a choice that should make us feel patriotic. We will be doing our part to boost the economy in ways no federal mandate can. It is up to us to resist corporate greed and return business to the hands of the people.

If you had the patience to read this, thanks for bearing with me and letting me get that off my chest. I’ll be back to more cheerful topics tomorrow.

Thoughtful Gift-giving

Yesterday I posted about balancing wants and needs. I had so many interesting responses that I would like to explore this topic a bit further…

I am sure most of you are still going about your last-minute gift shopping. I know very few people who plan far ahead and have nothing left to buy after Thanksgiving. Everyone wants to give gifts to people they care about. It is a way of expressing their love and showing that they took the time to think about what the recipient would really like. And this again comes back to the black and white of needs and wants, but throws in the gray of what would make someone happy.

One reader said her son had come to appreciate the “care” package she sent him every year, even though it included necessities as well as some special items. I think it is wonderful that he now sees this as an expression of her love for him (priceless) and does not measure the value of the gift itself. Does this mean we should not give extravagant gifts? Another reader pointed out that Jesus accepted oil as a token of devotion. If offering this gift felt right, it should be accepted even if it is expensive.

The purpose of a gift is to make the recipient happy, and by extension, also bring happiness to the giver. We all love to see the expressions of excitement, surprise and jubilation when we bestow a gift on someone and the feeling of pleasure that we get from their reaction is rewarding. By contrast, when we see the disappointment or fake excitement (which we can all see through), we feel like we have failed.

I think we have set ourselves up for this by asking children of a very young age to tell “Santa” what they want. Many parents also use the threat of “coal” for bad behavior, which implies that children deserve the gifts simply because they were good. Instead of teaching children to accept what they get gratefully and express their appreciation to the giver, we knock ourselves out trying to secretly buy the wished for items (and if you heard of the Black Friday atrocities, we even knock out others), and by the time the kids realize who had given the presents all along, they are so used to crediting Santa that they often forget to thank us. So over time, the joy of gift-giving has turned more into a chore. If we expect unrewarding reactions, we put less time into our efforts. Sadly, it should not be this way.

Whether it costs $10 or$100, a gift is an expression of your love and should reflect that, loud and clear. As we make our gift choices for people, it is also important to maintain our values. If we are against playing with toy guns, for example, we would not purchase one no matter how high on the wish list it ranks. But then we are faced with a dilemma of not getting the reaction we would like from the recipient, or regretting our breach of values later.

So we keep searching for the perfect gift idea. Something that balances our values with an item or service that will have meaning and bring pleasure, whether it is a need the recipient doesn’t yet recognize, or a luxury that falls within these guidelines. Whatever we do, it is important to give from the heart and show that we care. That is the greatest gift of all.

Balancing Wants and Needs

With Christmas approaching,  my relatives have asked what my children want for a gift. I have dutifully passed this request on to each of them, only to get the response, “I don’t really need anything.” Well isn’t that great news? I suppose that means I am doing my job so well that they have no outstanding basic needs. Except I look at them and notice that they are each growing out of their favorite clothes, t-shirts or soffee shorts. When I suggest adding those to their list, they only shrug and say they will think of something.

I wait for a few days and then get handed lists with extravagant wants on it- a pet rabbit, a pair of pistols, a giant furry beanbag and a livescript pen. Now I suppose those could be categorized as wants, but are they realistic? Why do I ask them to come up with their wildest wishes and then crush their hopes by saying these are too expensive or not acceptable?

Balancing our wants and needs is always a delicate act. My son needed snow pants and a ski jacket. He would have liked one from The North Face. We settled for a non-brand name that would serve the purpose without breaking the bank when he outgrows it in a few months and needs a replacement. My daughter wanted some beautiful, dressy tops but she never wears them to school and she needed shirts for cold weather. We compromised on some classic  tops that look nice and match her conservative style.

In todays’ economic climate, it is important to be able to distinguish the difference between want and need and to work out acceptable solutions. If we want to eat out once a week, we need to cook sensible meals at home the rest of the time. If we want to replace furniture in the house, we have to evaluate how badly we want it and if it is really necessary. As much as we would love to buy presents for everyone on our list, we need to assess how practical that really is and what we could get that is worthwhile on a budget.

So while I don’t mean to put the Scrooge in gift-giving and am not suggesting handing out socks and underwear, this holiday season is going to require a lot of creative thinking on my part. I would not tell my relatives not to buy my children’s wish list items (well-except for the rabbit), but now I must try to come up with some clever ideas which they may not have thought of themselves or even recognized that they would want- something with a measure of practicality as well as pleasure. This gets more challenging by the year since they are no longer into kid toys and don’t read books. I prefer not to buy gift cards, they seem so impersonal. Maybe some family board games would get them excited…what would they wish for?

Doesn’t a wish imply something out of the ordinary? Oh no, I think that brings me back to square one.

A Winter Weather Poem

Early this morning, there arose such a clatter;

I sprang from my bed to see from where came the chatter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash, pulled up the blinds and threw up the sash.

And what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a v-shaped formation of honking Canada Geese!

They passed overhead, wings rapidly beating as if to warn me that winter is coming

I pulled in my head and turned around, knowing there soon will be snow on the ground

So today my task is to prepare, my family’s cold weather wear

thermals and snowpants, scarves, hats and mittens

jackets and snow boots and  other warm things.

The problem with kids is that they keep growing,

and you don’t want to be caught with the wrong size when it’s snowing.

And unlike the geese, we do not migrate

So I must head to the store before it’s too late.

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