Last year, my husband and I took our teenage kids, aged 13 and 16 on a mega holiday to Myanmar during the Christmas holidays. It cost a virtual second mortgage but it was a trip of a lifetime. There was just one problem. While my husband and I congratulated ourselves on escaping winter gloom and Christmas hype, the kids didn’t always agree.
One evening, while sitting in a ramshackle restaurant with our toes in the sand, my daughter burst into tears. She was upset because she wasn’t getting any Chanukah presents.
While all her friends were doing Chanukah and/or Christmas at home, she felt deprived, even though she was on a fabulous, life-enhancing trip.
It seems that, for her at least, Chanukah has upped its game. Once it was a sing-a-long festival, fashionably light on religion and heavy on enthusiastic eating of waist-expanding fried foods, and spinning of dreidels. Now it’s a serious challenger to Christmas.
I can’t deny that the ideal Christmas spun to us is rather appealing. All that glitter and sparkle, dazzling shop windows, shelves stacked with goodies, party preparations and an acceptable slacking off at work. No wonder we want Chanukah to turn into something similar. And thus our festival of lights has bigged up to muscle in on the toasted-chestnut warmth of the festive season.
So, this year I’ve thought about a strategy for a successful Chanukah trying to make sure the meaningful messages outweigh the indulgent materialism.
On the present front, no one can moan about the fact that Chanukah is an eight-day affair. In our house, we’ve agreed on seven smallish, surprise presents and something more substantial on the last night. Not so subtle hints are regularly dropped such as “teenage girls can never have enough clothes” and “writing pads, pens, diaries and socks are not presents but essentials.” This is all very well, but the conundrum remains of what to buy for a teenage boy.
Of course, there is always the fallback solution of Chanukah gelt, providing the perfect opportunity to tell the tale of its origins. Apparently, the tradition of giving money as a Chanukah gift dates back to 17th-century Poland, where Jewish parents gave their children money for their teachers and the children inevitably demanded some for themselves — sound familiar?
To counter the “me, me, me,” of the festive season, I’m planning to purchase a goat and a chicken from a website called Goodgifts. They won’t be coming home to north London, it’s an organisation that lets you help struggling farmers and poor communities in Africa and India. The charity MyIsrael has created a similar scheme where families can dedicate one night of Chanukah to someone in need and offer them a gift that can transform their lives. This could be shoes for children, prescription glasses for those who cannot afford them or supplies of nappies for new mums. Or you can feel good about buying beautiful, handcrafted artisan menorahs and dreidels from a fairtrade Judaica site.
I am toying with the idea of a Radio 4-style “Chanukah Thought for the Day” for my family. For this I shall be turning to the Chanukah section of Chabad’s website, which has a comprehensive collection of teachings on the key themes of Chanukah. Their Chanukah Daily Tidbits are particularly user-friendly — a rabbi raises ideas for us to ponder as we add a candle each night and encourages us to spread light throughout the world. Also www. reformsynagogue.org has “Eight ways to celebrate Chanukah with teens.” I think that even my picky teens will like a movie night on the theme of freedom. (Think Suffragette and The Help).
There’s no shame either in borrowing ideas from the Americans, as we all know they do festivals better than we do. My family will be impressed if they come home to Martha Stewart’s homemade paper cut-out menorahs strung across the living room and Texan latkes flavoured with coriander and cayenne pepper.
I’m getting carried away with the thought of moody night-time walks followed by uplifting candle-lighting but I expect only the dog will join me for that.
Chanukah’s wrapped, I’m off to polish my menorah.