Recreating Chanukah

By Lisa Berman, Mayyim Hayyim Education Center Directorteaching

Can you recreate ritual? Of course we here at Mayyim Hayyim believe that you can reimagine it, breathe new life into it, re-envision it, and interpret it in new, contemporary and meaningful ways. We do it every day with the ritual of mikveh.  But could a family recreate Chanukah?

My family had reached the point where our teens, 14 and 19, were too old for the “one little present each night for seven nights and one big present on the eighth night” routine. They told us they didn’t need something to open every night – one book, one CD, one pair of gloves.  But I worried… what would make our nightly Chanukah gatherings special, if there weren’t even two little gifts to open?  Candle lighting and singing is great, but it just didn’t seem celebratory enough for us.  Then I read about Chanukah Family Theme Nights.

I started by researching online other families’ theme nights. I read about Book Night, CD Night, Tzedekah Night, Cookie Night, Movie Night… there were a lot of ideas. I chose what seemed like the best ones for our teens, tweaked them a little, and invited everyone to a Family Meeting.

The first thing we had to do was have what we call A Calendar Meeting. We had to schedule Chanukah. Well, we at least had to schedule our Chanukah family gatherings for every night. Most of them ended up around 9:30pm at night, after meetings and homework – but all that mattered was that we would carve out and guarantee time together for almost every night.

With iCals synched, I presented my Theme Night idea. Big success! Everyone had ideas about how each night’s theme should work. We finalized the ideas and wrote up a list – The Berman’s Chanukah 2011 – with dates, times, and themes, and posted it officially on the refrigerator:

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

Stories, Sweets and Hot Cocoa Night – we all had to come in our pajamas, the kids got little bags with chocolate (thank you Trader Joes), there were mugs of hot cocoa all around, and we read out loud the kids’ favorite Chanukah books from their youth. Turns out they’re still in love with Hershel and the Chanukah Goblins. And boy, there were some really dreadful Hanukkah board books way back when.

Latke Night — pretty self-explanatory, but it freed me from the expectation that I ought to make latkes every night, and let everyone else know they wouldn’t be expected to eat latkes every night. One night was just enough to make it special.

Make It or Give It Away Night – we drew one name each and the gift you gave could either be something you made yourself or something of your own that you were giving away – for keeps. My 19 year old gave my 15 year old her copy of the RMV Drivers Manual. My son created a mix CD for me with Taylor Swift songs (embarrassing for him, awesome for me).  I gave my husband an authentic Purple Heart I’d received in my advertising days (for valor in active service to really difficult clients – not actual injury), in recognition and admiration of the patience and perseverance with which he deals with his clients.

Tzedekah Night – everyone came prepared to make a case for a particular charity they would like our family to contribute to. Nothing But Nets, Keshet, Mazon, and more.

All Family Gift Exchange Night – when parents give kids gifts and kids have to give parents gifts, too. Yes, the kids had to borrow the car (age appropriately), go shopping, choose, buy, and wrap gifts for both their Mom and Dad. There were a lot of hushed discussions between Sarah and David, some running through the house with packages, shouts of “where’s the tape, Mom?”  They had shopped together – including a coffee shop stop for hot chocolate and pastries – but chose and purchased their own gifts for each of us. The kids were fantastic at reciprocating and had made beautiful, meaningful, and delightful selections.

berman chanukah

So, yes, you can reinvent Chanukah – or at least the rituals your family enacts to celebrate it. Our Chanukah 2011 theme nights completely reinvigorated our time together. The warm familiarity of lighting our traditional menorahs and singing the blessings, the novelty and intentionality of each evening’s activities, plus the focus primarily on giving to others instead of receiving, were just the right combination to produce a memorable and engaging family holiday time.

There is tremendous power in traditional, remembered, repeated rituals. They link us to our past and to each other. And then there are the times when you need to add in something new, something just right for who you are right now –as a person and as a family.

Wishing you and your family a very warm, festive, and light-filled Chanukah.

Lisa Berman, Mayyim Hayyim’s Education Center Director, has been involved with Mayyim Hayyim since its opening in May 2004. Lisa trained as a Volunteer Mikveh Guide and then served as the liaison to area congregational religious schools and adult study groups. Since 2006, Lisa has directed the Paula Brody & Family Education Center, where she develops curricula for all ages and interest levels; she also organizes and oversees more than 110 programs annually


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