Ronnie Fein is the author of Hip Kosher. She has appeared in cooking segments on such shows as “Good Day New York.” She lives in Stamford, Connecticut.

Hanukkah traditions

Old-fashioned goodies, music, and gifts

December 22, 2008

Last week, as I was driving my granddaughter home, I heard her tiny little voice from the back seat say, “You know, Grandma, I want Santa Claus to get me something for Hanukkah.”

This was a new one for me. Jewish-Americans always talk about what we call the “December Dilemma” — that is, what to tell our children about Santa. But it usually doesn’t come up this way. Usually they ask about Santa in terms of Christmas and tinseled trees and stockings hung by the fireplace near the cookies and milk left for . . . Santa.

Christmas and Hanukkah are not typically conflated.

“Hanukkah and Santa?” I asked. (I forgot momentarily that she’s only two-and-a-half years old.)

“Yes, because he’s coming to town, don’tcha know?”

It’s so important not to hurt kids’ feelings. I had to try really hard to stifle the uproarious laughter inside me.

Frying potato latkes for Hanukkah.

Lila’s preschool doesn’t emphasize holidays, so I know she didn’t hear about Santa there. And she doesn’t watch much TV, so that wasn’t a source either. I know her parents would not have brought the topic up only to have to explain that Hanukkah does not include the jolly guy in the red suit.

No, her Santa-Hanukkah holiday idea came from her nanny, who happens to be Hindu.

No harm, no foul, as my husband says about things that we don’t think are so important. December isn’t a dilemma for our family. We celebrate Hanukkah in all the traditional ways. But for the very young ones, the month is all a big hazy glow with presents and good food. They are too little to understand religious and cultural differences. They learn what our particular celebrations are when they mature somewhat.

My seven-year-old grandson Zev is old enough to understand now. He is thrilled that Hanukkah is an eight-day bash when we light candles, sing songs, play games, and eat latkes, like most everyone else we know who is Jewish.

When my children were young and living at home, we always used to have a party on the first night of Hanukkah. But now that they have their own families and babies and we don’t live down the block from one another, we celebrate on any day or weekend during the holiday. We were lucky this year, because the first night of Hanukkah began on Sunday, December 21, at sundown. Our children and grandchildren got together and lit the first candle in the menorah to begin the celebration of this festive holiday that commemorates a military victory.

The short version of the Hanukkah story is this: More than 2,000 years ago, the Greeks wouldn’t allow the Jews to keep their own faith, and their soldiers destroyed the holy Temple. But the Jews, under the leadership of the Maccabees, were victorious in battle and gained the right to worship as they saw fit.

When the men went to rededicate the Temple, they found only enough oil to last for one night. But miraculously, the candles burned for eight nights. And so we continue to light candles for each night of Hanukkah.

Because Hanukkah is so late this year and coincides with Christmas, we’ve decided to have a second celebration: a big party on Thursday, which happens to be Christmas Day, because that’s when everyone is off from work and we can get together easily.

When the children drive up to Connecticut, where we live, they’ll pass thousands of homes beautifully decorated with Christmas lights. They’ll see Santa Clauses on rooftops. If they listen to the radio, they’ll hear Christmas carols. Lila will undoubtedly be wondering if Santa will bring her a Hanukkah gift.

But when they come to grandma and grandpa’s house, they’ll hear their uncle banging on the piano and everyone yelling some Hanukkah songs (and sometimes even a Passover song) out of tune. They’ll put their pudgy fingers into the Hanukkah gelt (money) bowl — the one filled not with real coins, but the gold-covered chocolate kind. They’ll inspect the size and shape of the gifts, all wrapped in silver and blue, and wonder what’s inside.

And they’ll smell the heady perfume of crispy potato latkes blended with yeasty vapors from the fresh challah bread baking in the oven. Zev’s face will break into a smile when he sees I have made cheese blintzes, his favorite food.

I usually cook modern, American food. But for us, Hanukkah is a time for old-fashioned goodies. It’s my once-a-year tribute to my Ashkenazi soul, and to both my grandmothers, from whom my traditional recipes come.

We’ll also have lots of cookies. Not for Santa. For us.

Related recipe: Gingersnaps; recipe: Potato Latkes; recipe: Blintzes

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