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Holiday Traditions ’
Wednesday, December 17th, 2014
Let me say up front that I love the holiday season as much as the next person—the parties, the lights displays in homes and elaborate store windows, the ever-present Christmas music (well, to a point), the annual watching of It’s a Wonderful Life and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. People are in a warm mood, ready to celebrate with family. The whole thing feels so festive.
But the holidays are a bit different if you’re a Jew. You might get invited to a tree-trimming party, a Christmas concert, or even caroling (though you might be more inclined to watch than to participate). You might even have a holiday tradition that seems “Christian.” In my case, the season is never complete until I’ve seen the tree at Rockefeller Center, at night, with my kids.
In the end, though, you are acutely aware that this is not truly your holiday. You have your own: Hanukkah (which started last night, by the way). It’s a nice little holiday. There is the menorah you light to commemorate the victory by Judah Maccabee, who restored worship at the temple in Jerusalem nearly 2200 years ago. There are latkes and jelly doughnuts and chocolate coins and dreidels to spin. And as Adam Sandler’s comedic Hanukkah song points out, rather than just one day we get “eight crazy nights.” Let’s be honest, though: Hanukkah is no Christmas. It’s not a major holiday on our calendar, like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and a host of others. Were it not for the proximity-to-Christmas timing—with the exception of last year’s Thansgivukkah—it would barely move the needle at all.
Which brings me to my daughter, Isabella. She goes to Hebrew school and loves learning about Jewish history and traditions. She is proud of her religion and loves saying the prayer as we light the menorah each evening. Yet she also desperately wants us to get a Christmas tree. She’s been asking me for years, though her persistence recently reached a new level.
My answer, reinforced by her older brother (who is not nearly as caught up in the spirit of the season as she): “No. We are Jewish. This isn’t our holiday. We have Hanukkah.” She was hardly dissuaded. She’s pointed out that we give out presents both at Hanukkah and on Christmas Day. This is true, and a concession to my wife, whose family always celebrated this way. She’s suggested we could have a little mini tree to decorate—what she has cleverly called a “tree of life,” which also happens to be the title of a popular Jewish song they sing in class.
Still, I’ve refused. I’ve explained that we have our own traditions, and that Christmas trees aren’t one of them—and never will be. I explained that wanting a tree made it seem like being Jewish wasn’t enough for her. And I asked her to please stop asking. It made me feel like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof when he disowned his daughter Chava for marrying outside the faith. Or, to cite a more contemporary example, like the Grinch before his heart grew ten sizes plus two.
Isabella gave up, sort of, but she didn’t give in. A few days later, she came home with a small branch that had fallen off at a nearby Christmas stand. She put it in water, added an “Isabella” ornament she had once been given, and put it alongside a singing snowman that her mom had once bought her. Every day on her walk home from school she scoped out more branches and added them. It was a bit pathetic—reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s droopy little tree (before its absurd transformation at the end courtesy of his friends’ decorations)—but also oddly charming.
I have to hand it to her: Isabella found a way to embrace a symbol of the season without technically going against my wishes. Call it a pine-scented loophole. I decided to let her enjoy it, her own little Christmas miracle—even though I’m sure she envisions this “tree” (like the one in her favorite ballet, The Nutcracker) growing magically bigger and bigger in future years.
David Sparrow is a senior editor at Parents and a dad of two. He knows “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by heart.
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Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013
Editor’s Note: In an ongoing series, Dr. Harley A. Rotbart, a Parents advisor, will be guest blogging once a month with advice, tips, and personal stories on how parents can “savor the moment” and maximize the time they spend with kids. Read more posts by Harley Rotbart on Goodyblog and on Parents Perspective.
“Guess Who I Am!” (charades to the rest of the world) was a favorite holiday family treat for our kids. Kids may never be more creative than when trying to silently convey a concept to the rest of the family. But that wasn’t the case in our house.
Our daughter began loving “Guess Who I Am!” during family gatherings just before she turned 2 years old, and throughout the holidays that’s all she wanted to play. We’d all assemble in the living room on the navy blue canvas sofa, the one with all the fossilized spit-up stains from when the kids were babies, and play our version. The rules were simple: Each player had to act out a person or thing that we all knew, without revealing who or what, while the rest of us tried to guess.
Our 4-year-old son was usually a fireman, policeman, cowboy, Superman, baseball player, basketball player, football player, Power Ranger, Ninja Turtle, fisherman, swimmer, astronaut, dinosaur hunter, lion hunter, or bear hunter. It was tough for us to distinguish one hunter from another, but we got a clue with the dinosaur hunter since my son usually looked all the way up to the ceiling before shooting. Eventually, he caught on to his “tell,” and threw in giraffe hunter once in a while to trick us. For our turns, my wife and I tried to be creative, but mostly we picked similar “Guess Who” roles as our son, sticking to the rule about choosing a clue that we all knew. Sometimes, for variety, one of us would mimic a grandparent or neighbor. Our 6-month-old was amused by the game, giggling frequently, waving his arms, and kicking his legs in apparent simpatico with whoever was performing. Most of the time, though, he just added spit-up stains to the sofa.
Because our daughter did (and still does!) everything with flair and a flourish, it wasn’t surprising that she developed the most unusual approach to the game. On her turn, she would always take center stage (the middle of the faux-Oriental square rug in the living room), raise her right hand in the air, put her left hand on her hip, and turn around in circles. If she was wearing a dress, her left hand held the dress out to her side as she twirled. She did this every time. Every time!! The routine never varied, nor did the secret character she was portraying—she was always, always, always either a ballerina or a teacher. While we understood the ballerina’s movements, we really never got why a teacher would hold one hand in the air, the other on her hip, and twirl about. She hadn’t gone to preschool yet, so she couldn’t be imitating something a teacher did in class. Maybe a pirouetting princess is what she hoped her teachers would be like when she started school (and starting school was high on her list of best possible things to ever happen to a kid). When she accompanied me or my wife to drop off her older brother at preschool every day, she was so, so jealous. (Maybe one of her brother’s teachers twirled while we weren’t looking?)
However the ballerina-teacher thing developed, here’s how our December evenings would usually play out: Our budding thespian would stand center stage, assume the position, and twirl. Her big brother would roll his eyes. We would give him “the stare,” which meant he had to pretend he didn’t already know the answer, to which he would usually respond by slamming his hand onto the sofa in frustration. Then we would all make random guesses, to which our little girl would happily shake her head “no,” until one of us would finally ask, “Ballerina?” It was 50-50 whether we were right on any given performance. But if we didn’t choose correctly, we let big brother get the final victory. “Teacher?” he would guess, feigning ignorance. “Yes!” our little actress would joyfully nod.
May your own cold December nights be warmed by ballerinas and teachers, firemen, policemen, cowboys, Superman, baseball players, basketball players, football players, Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, fishermen, swimmers, astronauts, and hunters.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital Colorado. He is the author of three books for parents and families, including the recent No Regrets Parenting, a Parents advisor, and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).
Image: Frosted window with Christmas decoration via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, November 26th, 2013
Tonight, my boyfriend and I will be making the long drive to Tennessee to celebrate the once-in-a-lifetime holiday mash-up of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. I am so grateful that we get to spend these holidays with my family, especially since I haven’t been home in over a year.
However, I remember a time when having a family that didn’t celebrate Christmas felt frustrating. It was hard to explain why we didn’t celebrate Christmas to my friends. Once it was established that I celebrated Hanukkah, I had to clarify that we don’t actually get eight presents and it ranks low on the list of Jewish holidays.
“That is so uncool,” everyone would tell me, “And the other Jewish kids have trees.”
The trees weren’t in their imagination. A recent Pew study of Jewish Americans reports that there are more interreligious families than ever, at least among Jewish people. In fact, 58 percent of Jews who tied the knot between 2000-2013 married a non-Jewish spouse. (For my generation’s parents, it was 41 percent.) This has lead to an increase in multi-holiday celebrations and a decrease in menorah-only homes.
Because I felt left out, I spent a good portion of my childhood winters begging for a Christmas experience. I even began my journalism career with an article for my high school newspaper about my sadness over the tree-less state of my house.
But now that I’m nearly 1,000 miles away from home in the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, I am looking forward to going home to, well, not much of anything. We won’t be crafting or Christmas cookie baking or stringing up any lights. I don’t even have to worry about giving huge gifts or wearing festive attire. There is nothing wrong with having holiday spirit, but I am thankful that we will have the only dark house on our block in December. We’ll light candles, say some prayers, and hopefully feast on some latkes. And that’s all I need.
Jen M. L. wrote an amazing article over at the Huffington Post about embracing the title of “World’s Okayest Mom” and not starting new traditions because of media influence and general mom competition. I think her attitude is perfect. Parents: I hope you stick to your holiday traditions, however simple or small they may be. You don’t have to be the next Martha Stewart to make this season special. No matter what you do, your kids will be appreciative, even if it takes a few years for them to realize it.
Image: Boy with father and grandfather spinning dreidel via Shutterstock.
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Monday, November 18th, 2013
For many, Thanksgiving conjures up images of sweet potato pie, good company and relaxing in a tryptophan-induced state in front of a TV tuned to football. For me, it’s Popeyes.
Yes, the Cajun-inspired fried chicken chain never fails to give me the warm holiday fuzzies, because their turkeys are front and center at the Haskins family Thanksgiving table. It’s a tradition that began in jest, but has become a source of bonding for me and my parents. And it suits us perfectly — an offbeat turkey for a quirky family.
I first proposed the idea in high school, having spotted some mouthwatering posters for Cajun deep-fried Thanksgiving turkeys at a local Popeyes franchise. My mom was offended. Would I seriously choose fast food over her lovingly prepared, if admittedly slightly dry, turkey? I didn’t want to answer truthfully. But for years I pleaded, both to playfully torment my mom and because a Cajun deep-fried turkey really did sound delicious.
“Moooom, can we get a Popeye’s turkey this year?” I would beg each time we passed the restaurant, my nose pressed against the car window with the smell of Louisiana goodness wafting in.
“Absolutely not,” she’d scoff, and the car would zoom past the Popeyes, the scent of oily, fragrant chicken trailing us. End of discussion.
But my only child charm and the impending thought of my last Thanksgiving at home before heading to college coerced my mom into granting one silly request before our little family split up. So for Thanksgiving of my senior year, my mom relented, stuck a Popeyes turkey in the oven, and several hours later, we enjoyed (somebody else’s) scrumptious home cooking. (But as far as I’m concerned, putting something in the oven totally counts as cooking. And by that token, mom cooks a mean bird.)
We’ve all grown fond of the Popeyes turkey, and dare I say, proud, of our odd family practice. I don’t like homemade cranberry sauce. But I do like deep-fried turkey with a side of mashed potatoes and spicy gravy. If it works for my family, why bother with a Rockwell portrait spread? Even my dad, who always claims to be on some sort of diet, delights in the now almost annual treat.
Everyone has their own endearing shortcut that makes their meal their own, I’ve found. The only Thanksgiving I spent at college, a beloved professor let me and a few students in on his little secret. Two words: Boston Market.
It’s these imperfections that make family traditions so memorable. I’m sure some mythologically flawless families would be horrified by our low-key holiday, but we’re the ones who are enjoying every last bite. It’s your family tradition — I say, really make it one that you can look back on fondly, no matter what that entails.
Image via Shutterstock
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