It’s just days away. And no matter how old you are, there is something about Chanukah that brings out kid in all of us, taking us back to a time when we were all way cuter and shorter and the world was a far simpler place. Chances are that you, like me, have memories of specific Chanukah traditions that took place year after year after year in your parents’ home – some of which live on in your own humble abodes. And while it is great to carry on the customs you saw when you were growing up, there is no time like the present to create your own minhagim. And who knows? One day, you may just find your progeny carrying on those new traditions when they grow up and leave the nest. As a parent, there can be no better testament that you did right by your kids than seeing them repeat the things you did with them.
Ironically enough, while interesting variants of donuts are all the rage these days, I have zero memory of ever eating a donut in honor of Chanukah as a kid. Sufganiyot were something we learned about in schools as an Israeli custom, and that was pretty much it. Nowhere were there the humble custard-filled beauties or the exotic salted pretzel caramel donuts that weigh in at over 1,000 calories each. As for latkes, we probably ate them once over Chanukah and they would have come in only one flavor – potato. Curried sweet potato latkes? Leek? Apple Cheddar? Things like that didn’t exist even ten years ago to the best of my recollection, but progress can be a wonderful thing. In today’s information-packed world, treasure troves of recipes are available with just a single click and donuts and latkes are available in rainbows of flavors ranging from familiar favorites to the “you must be joking!” variety. So go for it – try a different flavored donut every night. Set up a latke bar at your family party. These are the things that memories are made of. Best of all? While there is no doubt that your kids will remember all their favorites, the ones that bombs also makes for great family memories and becomes something you may find yourself laughing about for years to come.
What do I remember most about Chanukah as a kid? I would be lying if I said that on the first night of Chanukah I couldn’t wait to see the candles glowing brightly against the darkened sky as we all gathered around the menorah and sang Maoz Tzur while we contemplated the Maccabees’ triumph over the Greeks and the miracle canister of oil that somehow managed to burn for an entire eight days. Let’s be realistic. That first night, all that raced through my head was the idea that there we were just minutes away from getting our presents, because that is what any normal kid thinks about as that first candle is being lit, a fact that is still as true today as it was then. Other traditions that equal Chanukah in my mind? Friday night dreidel games, played with nuts instead of coins, and my father sharing his stash with me when I was inevitably the first one to lose every year. Ending Maoz Tzur off every night with five extra words, “we are lighting Chanukah candles,” sung to the same tune, was another family tradition that took place night after night and still continues in my house all these years later. To be honest, I have no idea how that particular custom got started, but it doesn’t show any signs of abating, which is totally fine with me.
As my kids showed up and got bigger, we tried to find ways to make an already exciting holiday even more awesome. There were the present scavenger hunts, which involved me making up six or seven clues that weren’t too hard and weren’t too easy and then hiding them all over the house. Naturally, I always made sure that none of the clues were located anywhere near each other so that we had children racing up and down stairs in a mad dash to find the next hint that would ultimately lead them to the goody stash. Over time we also instituted sibling presents, with one child being responsible each night to give Chanukah gifts to all of his or her brothers and sisters. In truth, that idea created a lot more work for me than for anyone else since, living in the ‘burbs, my kids had no way to get to a store by themselves, but it was well worth it because the only thing better than giving your kids a gift is teaching them the joy of giving to others.
And then there was the year I walked into my friend’s house a few weeks before Chanukah to find colorful decorations hanging all over the walls and windows. It sparked the simcha of Chanukah days in advance and got everyone in the mood to celebrate. Within a week I had hit my local Amazing Savings and a new tradition was born. Colorful window clings in the shapes of menorahs, gelt and dreidels spun merrily on my large picture window, decorations hung from my chandelier and other Chanukah themed decor adorned the windows.
When my kids were younger, the big box of dreidels would come out early as well. In addition to playing dreidel, they would also have contests to see which dreidel could spin the longest. I confess that as my kids have gotten older I have scaled back a little bit on the decorations, but Rosh Chodesh Kislev is my reminder to pull out the Chanukah box and get to work. After all, why wait till the 25th day of the month to start celebrating when you can start weeks earlier?
No matter where you live, how many people are in your life, or how old you are, it is never too late to start creating some extra Chanukah magic in your home, adding an extra element of joy to your holiday celebration. Last year, I decided to try something new, creating a menorah centerpiece at our family party out of unconventional materials. I put a row clementines on a long narrow platter and topped each one with a single grape on a toothpick as a pseudo-candle adorned with a marshmallow flame, with a larger sized clementine serving as the shamash. This year? I haven’t decided yet. I might line up baby donuts with sour stick candles or do stacks of Oreos topped with orange Laffy Taffy flames. (I may even do something truly wacky involving pickles and olives, but that is like a state secret, so don’t tell any of my kids, okay?) My goal is for my grandkids to come in every Chanukah and run to the table to see what I put together for them this time and, maybe one day, even tell their kids about the crazy edible menorahs I made for them.
By now you already know that I am a big fan of mixing things up, just a little, to enhance the traditions that we are honored to carry on and to share with the next generation in a fresh and unique way. So, yup, we will be experimenting here on Chanukah as we try to create fun family memories, but one thing is for sure: No Eller Chanukah would ever be complete without my husband’s insanely delicious potato latkes.
Because some traditions just aren’t meant to be broken.