Stumbling into Holiday Traditions
My memories of the winter holidays growing up are not particularly strong. Being Jewish in a predominantly Christian town, we didn’t do much. The only image that floats in my consciousness is of a leaf-shaped menorah and not much else. I have stronger memories of being the only Jewish family in different town and celebrating Christmas that year so we didn’t feel left out. We didn’t play dreidel (spinning top game), we didn’t eat latkes (potato pancakes), we didn’t get together with the extended family. It was the holiday that wasn’t.
When I had my own daughter, I felt the need for rituals that had a spiritual basis of some sort. I wish I could admit to devising some detailed plan of great religious meaning. What actually happened was more organic–a series of ad hoc decisions that over time became our Chanukah traditions.
It started when my daughter turned three–that neat age when you can talk to kids, even reason with them and they respond to you. Most of her friends at day care and the neighborhood were not Jewish, which at times made it hard on her. So in an effort to be inclusive, I had several small dinners where we invited friends over for latkes, dreidels and just sharing winter traditions. Learning from my mother, I ordered latkes from a local caterer cause I had no idea how to make them. We had so much fun sharing Chanukah that inviting people over, often more than just one night, became the first pillar of our holiday rites.
The following year, my daughter attended a Sunday school of sorts and came home with two menorahs she made out tiles and bolt holders. The previous years we used the eagle menorah my parents gifted us. With my wide-eyed stubborn girl determined to use all three menorahs, we adapted a more orthodox tradition–one menorah per family member. So counting our cat in the mix , we lit three menorahs and I discovered I liked it. The scent of fire, a room bathed in candlelight, a sense of abundance that comes when everyone has their own but we work together to make the lights glow.
That year, I got more ambitious–I made my own latkes. Okay with a box mix but I tried, right. The potatoes did not go brown, but I’d never fried anything. They were edible. Enough, so I established two pillars that year. Use more than one menorah and a commitment to making latkes.
After two years I mastered the boxed latke and my ambition grew. I would make them from scratch–once I got a food processor. Success. I now make my own latkes, and even experiment with them. Just last week, I won a small Thanskgivica cook-off for pumpkin latkes.
Finally, last year I added one more level–a commitment to respect the giving nature of the season by incorporating charity into our traditions. Last year, I gave it as an additional gift. This year I shared with my daughter a donation to charity will replace one gift one night. She not only supported the decision, but volunteered to give up two gifts to help others. Charity, the last pillar of my tradition, is now in place.
For the moment.
One never knows how it will change or expand in the years to come.
My story’s just that gentle reminder that traditions, like writing, are our stories to create. Sometimes we plan them, sometimes we pants them. And they evolve, never remaining stagnant event though we tend to think of them that way. But any way you get there, is the right way.
Happy Thanksgivica to all.
Post script: I’ve got a new book coming out December 6. Take a peak at the cover. Its really quite lovely. More about it next time.