Life & Culture

Hilary Freeman: My family Chanukah

Author, journalist and agony aunt Hilary Freeman tells us about the gift of giving and what Chanukah means to her this year


Chanukah has always been my favourite Jewish Holiday. It’s a festival of sensual delights: the flickering candles; the smell of smoke and melting wax; the sound of latkes sizzling in a pan; the taste of sugary, fatty doughnuts, with their hidden surprise of jam. It’s also a festival that celebrates the enjoyment of choosing presents for our loved ones. 

This year, my daughter Sidonie, will celebrate her second Chanukah. At just 17 months old, she is too young to understand the concept of the festival, of course, but she’s old enough now to get excited by the gifts  - or, at least, to appreciate the joys of crunchy, sparkly, deliciously tearable wrapping paper.

Sidonie is at the stage where everything is new and fascinating, from discarded satsuma peel to empty cardboard boxes, that she can bash, or pile up, or scribble on with her crayons. This makes buying presents for her simultaneously both extremely easy and impossible. She wants everything, and nothing. There are not yet any consumer or peer pressure, no ‘must have’ toys, so anything will please her. But her concentration span is so small that every object is an ephemeral pleasure, played with for a minute or two, before being cast aside.

This doesn’t detract from my fun in shopping for her. I peruse the aisles at Sainsbury’s, looking for gift ideas, and for new foods that she can try. When I see the toys, I am transported back to my own childhood, to the deep longing I felt for the objects of my childish desire. I remember rushing home from school on the first night of Chanukah to find my presents  neatly wrapped on the table, next to the pristine Chanukiah with its colourful candles ready to be lit. I recall the delicious anticipation I felt as I fondled them, trying to deduce the content by shape and touch. In those days, my brother and I received gifts every night of Chanukah: the main ones on the first night, followed by smaller items as the week progressed. Our non-Jewish friends were so jealous that we had eight nights of presents, not just one day.

Sidonie loves music, stopping whatever she’s doing and getting up to dance when she hears any tune, in any genre. For her birthday, we bought her a baby ‘guitar’ and a xylophone. Perhaps, for Chanukah, we will get her a tiny ‘piano’.  For my teenage niece there will be make-up, and for my 10-year-old nephew, something football related. I’m not telling you what I’m getting for my boyfriend; I don’t want to ruin the surprise.

For everybody else, there will be token gifts: chocolates or bath products, books or stationery. We’ll all get together, one night, at my parents’ house. And after we’ve lit the candles and sung Ma’oz Tzur, and opened our presents, we will tuck into my mum’s latkes, cooked to an old family recipe and always slightly burnt at the edges. This year, like every other, they will be served with Applekraut (savoury apple jam), according to my late German grandfather’s tradition.

Explore Kosher food for Chanukah at Sainsbury’s

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