Family Jewels: My Aunt’s Favorite Ring

One of the most special people in my life was my Aunt. She taught music to school children and always seemed full of energy and humor. I was born on her birthday and she and I shared a special bond. When I was just learning to speak, I pronounced my name “Audi”. That name stuck with her and, once I had outgrown it, she was the only person I allowed to still use it. I was old enough to be the flower girl at her wedding and many years later she was overjoyed to celebrate mine.

Aunt and Uncle had no children of their own; so whenever we saw them, we always made sure to have some special time together. With Aunt, this often included singing some songs. She had a lovely voice and knew plenty of kid friendly music.

She and my uncle had classic taste. Their house was full of antiques which they collected at weekend auctions or estate sales. Her wardrobe consisted of turtlenecks and sweaters ordered through the LL Bean catalog- nothing flashy or fancy. Her jewelry, on the other hand, was where she made her statement. Sapphire was her birthstone, but she also loved rubies and emeralds. Uncle was pleased to surprise her with beautiful pieces he had found at some of the sales they attended.

She would walk into the house wearing a navy turtleneck with dark pants and a sweater, but she would sport pearl earrings and a sapphire and diamond ring on her hand. As a kid, her cheery smile and warm hug as I rushed into her arms was what really mattered to me.

Sadly, her life was cut short by lung cancer. By that time I had children of my own and their memories of her are as an ill person who tried to be friendly  between coughing fits. I have tried to pass on some of the songs she sang to me and create  a different picture of her for my kids.

A few years ago, my uncle decided it was time to pass along some of Aunt’s jewelry. I have two sisters who were equally close to her. Uncle sent us a package to go through together. Some things were for us to sort out ourselves, others were specifically earmarked by him for one or another of us. This sparkling sapphire and diamond ring was one of her favorites and Uncle thought I should have it since Aunt and I shared a birthday.

It means a lot to me. Whenever I look at it, I think of her. I remember her bright smile and optimistic outlook on life. At Christmas, I sing one of the school children songs she taught.  I miss her on our birthday and often shed a tear. I would gladly give her ring back in exchange for another cheery hug. As beautiful as this ring is, it could never replace her.

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. 

Holiday Greetings!

English: s

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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.

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.

Black Friday ad nauseam

A mother plays the guitar while her two daught...

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Why do I need to be reminded that Christmas is on its way when I am still planning for Thanksgiving? It seems that every time I flip stations on the radio, I always come across one that has been playing Christmas music since the day after Halloween. Not only that, but the retailers have started putting their jingles on the air, telling me how many shopping days are left. It makes me sick that we have become so materialistic as a society and that no one seems to be bothered by all this commercialism.

The retailers used to wait until after Thanksgiving to gear up, but then Black Friday was created. Now there are even other groups claiming shopping days- like Cyber Monday. This year Saturday has been designated  Small Business Saturday, as a way to support locals rather than big corporations. At least that one, kind of makes sense. And speaking of corporations, now I am seeing ads reminding consumers that layaway options are available. What they don’t do is remind people that this just sinks them further in debt, the very hole they are trying to get out of.

Why do we seem to “need” so many presents under our trees? Even Hanukkah has been roped in to the consumer loop as Jewish children try to keep up with their Christian playmates. I know, because we celebrate both traditions in my house. At first we tried to make Hannukah more like my husband remembered it, with one gift per day including one major present. But we quickly realized that it was more important to recognize the symbolism of the menorah and the traditional foods, latkes and applesauce, than to shower the kids with gifts; especially since they would get more for Christmas less than a week later.

While I am not talking about spoiling the fun of Santa Claus and a pile of presents under the tree, do we really need to place so much value on toys and gadgets? If we could lower our childrens’ expectations and prolong their ability to wait for a birthday or other gift-giving opportunity, perhaps the quality vs. quantity and anticipation of the gifts would be a reward in itself. While giving is a part of Christmas, it is also important to do so within your means, like the Little Drummer Boy. As a child, I was equally happy with a new album or book as I was with a hand-knitted set of mittens- or at least I tried to be since I knew about manners.

I don’t know how to combat this issue as a parent, trying to pass valuable lessons on to my children without making them frustrated that they get less than their friends. As you can see, this has made me very cranky; but it all started because of the Christmas music ad nauseam. It is a vicious cycle. I wish we could return to simpler times when holidays had more meaning, and Christmas music was only sung during its celebration.