To all those out there in the blogosphere who celebrate Chanukah (Hannuka/Hanukkah/Hanuka…), enjoy this warming, fun, but not-really-all-that-important-to-Judaism holiday. Chanukah, celebrated because of a miracle that happened during a war over land considered holy, is actually a minor holiday that has been blown way out of proportion due to its calendarial (I made that word up) proximity to Christmas. Even so, it is one of my favorite holidays, with its tradition of family, songs, food, games, candles and presents.
Our kindergarten social studies curriculum includes a focus on family and holiday celebrations, and I do Chanukah up pretty big. This year I made latkes for 45 kids, taught everyone to play dreidle and sing the dreidle song, and sent each child home with a wood dreidle, a gold-covered chocolate coin and a picture of a menorah. We have a very diverse population and it was pretty funny for the father of one of my Chinese girls to tell me that all she talks about at home is Chanukah. I heard that from a few of the families. What is not to love about this holiday?
Our family,with its older generation of Holocaust survivors and refugees and its newly American younger generation, knew how to party on Chanukah. We would gather at my Aunt and Uncle’s home where we would eat some warming meal that always included steaming hot, greasy and incredibly delicious potato latkes, followed inevitably by chocolate. In a Dutch/Belgian family, Jewish or not, chocolate is its own food group. And Chanukah is, for some reason, associated with chocolate. Say no more. Every year each child would be given a chocolate alphabet letter corresponding with his/her first name. Most of those were nibbled down to crumbs before the end of the night. And what a night it always was.
Piled by the window, the full length of the living room wall and up to the window sill itself, was a mountain of presents wrapped in blue, white and silver paper. You could not even tell there was a folding table under the mass of boxes because there were gifts in front of the table, next to the table and on top of the table. When we were young, we thought we had died and gone to kid heaven. As we grew older, we found the sheer abundance of gifts and the hours it took to get through opening them somewhat of a mortifying embarassment. Not to mention expensive. And it did take hours- someone would be designated gift-giver and would give out one gift at a time. His (always one of the boys) job would be to keep track of whose turn it was to open a gift, and to keep an informal count so that it all came out even. The receiver would open the gift while we all watched with as much anticipation as if it were our own. Many of the presents came with a poem that had to be read aloud and discussed before the wrapping paper was ripped off. The poem sometimes gave clues about the gift and sometimes poked fun at the person about to open it. My father was the master present-poet; he could write Odysseus –length odes to a single present, while the rest of us usually scraped out a four-line rhyming bit of silliness.
There were several other traditions that my family overdid during this holiday. Every year there were gifts to one cousin that revolved around nuts. I’m still waiting to learn the origins of that whole thing, but every package he opened had walnuts falling out of it or was made from walnuts. There were always gag gifts in among the pile for a variety of people, but every year one person was really targeted. One year a cousin received no less than twenty pairs of socks, each sock being wrapped individually in large and small packages. The poor sucker probably bitched to his mother months before that he could never find socks to wear. In my family, you watched what you said lest you become the next Chanukah victim. Seriously. Sometimes there was that gag where a large box had a smaller box inside and inside that was a smaller box and so on until you came to an envelope or tiny box, like a Russian doll. It was often a really treasured gift but sometimes it was…a sock.
When all of the visible presents were open, the kids got really quiet and impatient. For under the tablecloth covering the folding table was a big gift for one lucky child. We never knew who it would be and since there were five of us cousins, it could be years until it was your turn again. A bicycle, a sled, a dollhouse or doll carriage, a television or a boombox; the lucky recipient would jump up and down screaming while the rest of us kids, sitting among ridiculous piles of stuff looked on with envy. Our Chanukah parties were legendary.
Our family continued the tradition with the next generation as long as we could, but now it is down to a very much simpler and more realistic gift exchange that revolves more around the latkes and the chocolate. Of course it helps that we also celebrate Christmas- and the presents are piled up to the bottom of the tree and all around it, and there is often a large gift hiding under a table cloth for some lucky kid…
For those who wish to be entertained by a modern Chanukah song, here is a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=EeC8nTYEwQQ
For those who wish to further educate themselves on the history of this holiday, here is a helpful link: http://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/102978/jewish/The-Story-of-Chanukah.htm