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!

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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. 

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.