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Hanukkah in the middle of a pandemic shut down is certainly different. My gifts for the grandchildren are at my children’s homes. Brought there by different delivery services; wrapped by others and hidden away and waiting for them to be given after the candles are lit. This year there won’t be any celebration at my home, and the house feels so empty and quiet.
This year as the holiday approached I felt myself feeling sad like a dark cloud was over my head. How would we have any kind of family celebration? Given how I was raised, my sadness, my reaction, made no sense to me.
Growing up I don’t remember my parents ever celebrating Hanukkah. I do remember the Christmas tree. I remember the gifts under the tree, and sitting in front of the tree in the dark, watching the lights on the tree go on and off. So, I’ve often wondered where my commitment to observing the Jewish holidays with my children came from, as that was not a part of my childhood. I’ve always had a strong desire to teach my children about their Jewish heritage and our traditions.
When my children were growing up, Hanukkah was a festive time in our home. For eight nights we’d gather together to light the candles: one additional candle each night until all eight of the hanukkiyah lights were lit. We’d sing songs, tell the story of Hanukkah and receive gifts. On the first night the gifts were small, and with each passing night the gifts got bigger. Scotch-taped on top of each gift was a piece of Hanukkah gelt (chocolate wrapped as a gold coin).
But for me, Hanukkah started weeks earlier when I’d start planning our celebrations. As I have three children, I needed 24 gifts, one gift for each night, plus one gift for my husband for the last night of Hanukkah. Sometimes our mothers would join us for the holidays and that meant more gifts to be bought.
Over weeks, I’d buy, wrap and hide the gifts with the hope the children didn’t find them. Then, about two days before Hanukkah started, I’d pile the gifts on the living room coffee table. My children would exam each wrapped gift, trying to figure out what it was and who it was for. And I’d start to cook traditional delights such as potato latkes with homemade apple sauce and jelly doughnuts.
Each night of Hanukkah, before any of my children could get a gift, they had to give the family a gift. It could be singing a song, reciting a poem, a picture they drew or telling a part of the Hanukkah story. It taught my children that Hanukkah is not only about receiving but also about giving.
Now that my children are all grown, with children of their own; my place is empty until the last night. That’s when my family and my grandchildren will often come over to celebrate. The change is both painful and wonderful. Painful because my time has passed, I miss those days. But what really matters is that the torch is still lit and that is the wonderful part: The celebration is now in the capable hands of my son and my daughters.
The change didn’t stop my planning rituals, however. Weeks before, I would work out what meal to make for the last night and what gifts to buy. I’d send many e-mails to my family: What about this gift? That gift? What big gift do you want for the last night? What should we have for dinner? What can you bring? Maybe we shouldn’t have that? Are the kids bringing any friends? And if they are, what should I buy the friend?
Most of the time, my children are wonderful and don’t complain about the e-mails. I eventually figured out why: They simply don’t read them. And so in the end I’d buy what I want and serve what I want. I am just happy the family still comes to my home.
My children have also taught me something.
My son started a new family tradition. On the last night of Hanukkah there is no “big gift.” It has been replaced with his sons researching and deciding what charity their gift money should go to, bringing the concept of giving and of community into the Hanukkah celebration. My two daughters celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, so my grandchildren have two heritages: one Jewish and one Christian, and by celebrating both they are given the opportunity to learn about each.
This year, in spite of the need to stay separate and in our own homes, we are still having our family get-together. My children have organized an online Hanukkah. On Zoom, we will light the candles together, eat together, sing together and open our gifts. And in doing so, they’ve taught me that we can come together in different ways, no matter how far away we might physically be from one another. What more could any grandparent want?
Bella Hazzan lives in Etobicoke, Ont.