Hi, Frieda here for another roundtable discussion. This month’s topic: Hanukah celebrations. Personally, I love this holiday, and I’m always so excited when it comes around.
This year, everyone is talking about the shortage of goods (especially if you’re an importer, like many men in the community). Will there be enough gifts for sale? Will the prices be as high as they say due to limited supply? Only time will tell. So let’s instead discuss family celebrations. I’m here to share with you some good memories and useful ideas.
In my family, Hanukah usually includes a secret grab bag – one for the kids, and another round for the young adults. Lots of food and donuts, both store-bought and homemade. My aunt fries donuts and sprinkles them with lots of powdered sugar. Another aunt, who’s been hosting for the past several years, likes to plan games to get everyone involved, both young and old. We all hang out and catch up, and it’s really something we look forward to. With everyone getting older, now married and having their own families, I don’t often see my first cousins. The young adults’ grab bag offers us the opportunity to give to each other, and it’s something I organize each year to keep us connected.
Last year, due to Covid, the party looked much different. In fact, to most, it hardly felt like a party at all, but an effort was made. My Aunt Terry, who usually hosts the party, decided not to cancel the event, but to instead make it virtual. She instructed everyone beforehand to pick up a special holiday treat from her house – a pack of holiday-themed cupcakes for each family. We were then given a Zoom login and a link to a trivia game. On the day of the party, my aunt happened to be here in Deal, so I invited her and her family to come play the trivia game at my place, and it was amazing. We ordered takeout and logged in on several computers at the scheduled time. The advantage of a virtual event was that we were joined by my uncle, aunt and cousins who moved to Israel about seven years ago, and who were able to join and play the game over Zoom.
The game was surprisingly entertaining and fun. My aunt’s family took the time to make a trivia question about each member of the family, such as, “What was the name of Uncle Albert’s office cat?” or, “How did so-and-so meet their spouse?” They were multiple choice questions, each with three silly options and one correct answer to choose from. It was also surprisingly bonding. We kept the grab bag for the kids and had them delivered to everyone’s house beforehand. The kids took turns (like we normally do), youngest to oldest, opening their gift on the live Zoom and thanking whoever sent it.
Yet, as nice as it was, I am very much looking forward to us being all together this coming holiday!
With my husband’s family, we changed it up a little. Years back, we used to do a grab bag, but with significant gifts. The spending limit was $50-$100, and people would sometimes make it known what they wanted to avoid the risk of getting a large gift they didn’t want. Last year, we weren’t feeling the high spending limit, so my sister-in-law did something fun: she collected $10 from each of us and bought small, general gifts. She wrapped and numbered them and laid them out on the table at our Hanukah party. When it was time to do gifts, everyone chose a number out of a hat that corresponded to a gift. She announced that trading was allowed, and as soon as we opened the gifts, some people clung to their gems, while others swapped. It was lots of fun. These gifts included a handheld milk frother, head massager, small box with a variety of Chapsticks, small colored plastic cats to be hung on wine glasses to tell them apart, and Poo Pourri (fancy bathroom spray). I still have no idea what this year’s party will look like, but I’m hoping to see everyone in person.
Now let’s turn our attention to some other community members, and see how they celebrate the holiday with their extended family.
We’re all invited to a family member’s house, usually my aunt. We enjoy a family meal and hang out together. It’s so nice. We have a grab bag to exchange gifts, which is always lots of fun.
In recent years, my aunt has prepared games for us, which have been great. One year, we played Family Feud. My aunt questioned me in advance about my favorite foods, and she placed them on a board, hidden. Then she pinned my husband and my mother against each other in competition to see who could get the most correct answers. My mother won, of course! We all had a good laugh as more family members competed answering various silly questions about their spouses, parents, and cousins. In another game, the daughters were blindfolded and told to do their mothers’ makeup for two minutes. Whoever’s mom looked the best by vote, won!
Some of the other games were simpler, but just as fun, as they allowed the younger kids to get involved. One was separating M&M’s with a straw – whoever got the most blues out in the time allotted was the winner. For each game, my aunt had small gifts such as Amazon gift cards ready to hand to the winners!
My husband had the idea of instead of giving presents for all eight nights, we would do acts of kindness on one or two of the days of Hanukah. Last year, we bought presents and dropped them off to Sari Shamah (a community healthcare worker) who distributed them in the pediatric ward in Monmouth Hospital. The idea is to do an act of hesed in lieu of giving and receiving gifts. This gives us and our children the sense that it’s not all about getting, that giving can be just as rewarding, if not more so.
Each of the eight nights, I make oily food with dinner, such as French fries or latkes, to make it feel special and yummy. Additionally, each child gets a small, inexpensive gift. I also decorate the inside of my home and put a bowl of chocolate gelt on the table to make the home feel festive. My husband likes to purchase donuts multiple times during the holiday, as well. All this helps us feel the spirit of the holiday all eight days!
Each year, a different family member hosts our Hanukah party. We all cook and bring a dish (pot luck dinners make it easier on the hostess), and the rest of us help plan the entertainment. Sometimes we do real gifts, but other times we do cheaper gag gifts, which are fun. We have a good laugh as each of us takes turns opening our presents from a mystery sender.
Entertainment varies each year, but we always make sure to keep all ages excited and involved. Minute To Win It is the most popular game we’ve played. We choose simple games that can be played with household items, such as: who can pull the most tissues out of a tissue box with one hand behind their back in one minute; who can knock the most plastic cups down with a ball placed inside a stocking (also within one minute).
On the other nights of the holiday, I have my own traditions. I fry up some edge (Syrian latkes using various veggies in addition to potato) and distribute it to both sides of our family. We light the candles and sing and dance around the menorah. Next, we take out dreidels which we save from year to year, and we play for money, following the traditional dreidel rules. To keep it interesting, my husband decides in each round what price point to give the child who wins.
We don’t give “big-ticket” gifts every night. They get one nice gift for Hanukah, priced usually around $100, no more, and the other nights they’ll either get treats or small prizes. Donuts are typically one of the treats. Another night we’ll go to shul and they’ll hand out candy bags, like on Simhat Torah, that is their treat for that night. We like to teach the value of little things, not to afford too much significance to expensive gifts, so that we do not lose the meaning of the holiday in the materialism that may come with it.
We like to play the traditional dreidel game as a family during the holiday. Instead of gelt or money, we play with M&Ms. Each year, we buy matching pajamas for the whole family. At our holiday party, a fun event is the pinata – but instead of filling it with candy, we fill it with Hanukah gelt and dreidels.
Leah Nachmani @dumbanddelish
One year, I invited all the small kids in my family over for a Hanukah celebration. I had the table decorated with gifts of various sizes as centerpieces. Each gift had the name of a child on it. I wrapped for each child one large, “good” gift that he or she would like, and I also wrapped some “bad” gag gifts to make them laugh, such as a pack of batteries or tea bags. We all got a kick out of seeing the reactions to the terrible things I decided to wrap and call gifts…
We do some standard things. For example, a few weeks before Hanukah, we put the names of all the family members in a hat and we each pick to determine whom we need to buy a gift for. We also get together and choose a spending limit. We really love this. I find it brings us together, as we give to someone in the family we might not have thought to buy a gift for.
At our holiday party, we have donut wars, an activity we all enjoy. My mother buys pre-made frozen dough balls and defrosts them in the morning. Then, instead of baking them like it says on the package, she fries them in a shallow baking pan until each side is golden and the middle is cooked through. Next, she prepares the filling and topping table. She puts syringes of Nutella, vanilla and chocolate icing, peanut butter sauce, custard, and jelly. She then puts out bowls of toppings, sprinkles of varying colors and shapes, all different kinds of chocolates like chocolate chips, heath chips, different colored icing in piping bags for drawing and writing, whipped cream, and cherries. She also puts on the table a pile of different serving platters and boards for the teams to choose from.
After everyone’s eaten the meal and it’s time for dessert, the bakers take their places at the decorating stations. Usually, there are four teams of two. They have ten minutes to decide what their plan is, and 25 minutes to execute it. The judges (four family members) make their decision based on taste, creativity and presentation, so the teams really have to focus if they want to win the prize. My mom buys a donut-shaped trophy, and it’s truly coveted. She also buys ribbons for the second and third place winners. Within the first ten minutes of the competition, the teams sit down with a notebook and draw out a plan of what it’ll look like and what it’ll be filled and topped with. When my mom blows a whistle, they are allowed to begin decorating. A second whistle blow means “hands down,” the competition has ended. The trays are brought to the judges one at a time, and one of the team members describes the vision and what they should be tasting. The judges have their cards and they mark from 1-10 on taste, 1-10 on presentation, and 1-10 on creativity. The spectators taste along with the judges, and some of them even fill out their own judging cards to see if they match up with the judges. The team who gets the most points combined from all the judges’ cards wins! My mom announces the winners from last place to first, and it’s always really exciting!
I don’t know about you folks, but I’m super inspired to make this year’s party the best yet. Such awesome and creative ideas for bringing the family together in playful competition!
Wishing everyone has a happy and healthy holiday!
If this article inspires something great, I’d love to hear about it! You can email me Frieda@sephardic.org or write to me on Instagram @friedaschwekyphoto.