Happy Chanukah! Today is the first day of the Jewish holiday. Soon it will be winter solstice, then Christmas, and after that it’ll be time to turn the calendar on another year. Over the next couple of weeks, many of us will gather to celebrate with friends and family. In many cases, we’ll be drawing on traditions that go back years. Here are a few more writer friends sharing their favorite holiday traditions.
Ellen Jaffe: Being Jewish, my family celebrated Chanukah as I was growing up, and I have continued celebrating this holiday in my own family. The holiday commemorates the ‘miracle” of a single day’s vial of holy oil lasting for eight days, so we light candles each night in a special candle-holder called a Menorah or Hanukiah, starting with one candle on the first night, then two on the second night, then three….all the way up to eight, as well as the “helper” candle, called the Shamash, used each night to light the others. The candles burn for about 30-45 minutes, adding more light each night — just as we welcome back the light after the winter solstice. This is my favourite tradition for this holiday, which symbolizes hope and joy, even in dark times. We eat potato pancakes (latkes) and special jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot), both cooked in oil, and children play with a spinning top called a dreidl winning raisins and pennies. The holiday is mainly celebrated at home, and each family has its own menorah — we used one that had belonged to my great-grandmother, which I still have today; there are elegant silver ones and ones that are hand-made from clay. Last year our synagogue in Hamilton, Ontario asked families to bring their menorahs on the last night of Chanukah — and over 100 menorahs, or more than 900 candles — all shining at once. I used the menorah as a “portal” in my young-adult novel, Feast of Lights: when the heroine, Sarah, looks into the candle-flames, she travels back in time to meet her great-great-grandparents and other ancestors.
Ellen S. Jaffe Feast of Lights (Sumach Press) www.ellen-s-jaffe.com
Joan Galat: My favourite holiday tradition is baking and decorating cookies with my children, even now that they’re grown. In addition to Christmas-themed cookie cutters like stars, trees, wreaths, and Santa, we can’t resist the other shapes in my collection and end up making Christmas porcupines, snails, moose, dogs, and dog bones. We lather each cookie in red, green, and white icing and embellish with chocolate chips, raisins, candied fruit, sprinkles, and coconut. Choosing which cookie to eat from all the creative masterpieces takes some time.
Joan Marie Galat, Branching Out, How Trees are part of Our World (Owlkids) www.joangalat.com
Lee Edward Fodi: Every December my wife (actress Marcie Nestman) and I host a Yoda Yulefest party for all of our geeky writer and acting friends. It started out a few years ago when we were trying to make our party stick out from all the other things going on. At first, it just started out with the title and a Star Wars Wreath on the door, but every year it gets a bit bigger. We now have many geek-themed ornaments around the house, including a Yoda tree. We prepare Yoda Soda and Yoda cookies for the guests and during the party itself we end up having one room for geek games, such as Star Wars Operation and Zombie Dice. Later on in the evening we end up writing and/or performing Star Wars parodies of Christmas carols or stories.
We always make lots of extra Yoda cookies for the creative writing classes that we teach and we hand them out at the last workshop before the holiday break. That’s become a big tradition, too—which I found out a few years ago when I skipped cookies on the last day because of time pressure. Boy, did I hear about it!
Lee Edward Fodi, Kendra Kandlestar and the Crack in Kazah (Simply Read Books) www.kendrakandlestar.com
Kristin Butcher: When my husband and I were starting out in marriage (44+ years ago) my mother-in-law gave us a variety of decorations, one of which was a little Santa —no more than a couple of inches high — that could hook round something cylindrical. Over the years it has become a tradition for me to place this Santa somewhere less than obvious but not hidden each year, so that my husband has to hunt him down. I guess you could call him a Secret Santa.
Kristin Butcher, Alibi (Orca Book Publishers) www.kristinbutcher.com
Jacquie Pearce: My husband, daughter and I celebrate several Christmases each year. My husband’s family is Ukrainian on his dad’s side, and we refer to our many celebrations as one long “Ukrainian Christmas” (even though the only thing Ukrainian about it is that it lasts more than one day, and we sometimes have perogies as part of our Christmas dinner). My husband, daughter and I usually have an early Christmas at our house in Vancouver, then we take the ferry to Vancouver Island to spend several days at my husband’s parents’ house (in the town where we both grew up), and we also visit my parents, who live in the same town. We have a tradition of getting together with friends on Boxing Day, then getting together with my family for another Christmas celebration sometime between the 27th and New Year’s Day.
We’ve only broken with this tradition twice. Once, when my husband (boyfriend then) and I were going to university in Toronto, and we stayed in Toronto for Christmas. The other time was when my father-in-law was recovering from a paralysing back injury in hospital in Vancouver. That Christmas, my husband’s family came to Vancouver, and we gathered for Christmas dinner in the cafeteria of G.F. Strong, sitting at a long table beside the cafeteria’s Christmas tree. Instead of turkey, we had Chinese take-out from my father-in-law’s favourite Vancouver restaurant. Instead of a visit from Santa, we had a visit from my father-in-law’s doctor. The best present of all was learning that my father-in-law was on his way to making close to a full recovery.
Jacqueline Pearce, Siege (Orca Book Publishers) www.jacquelinepearce.ca
And finally it’s my turn: My favorite part of the holidays is Christmas Eve. But it wasn’t always. As a child I was impatient for the night to end because my parents always seemed stressed and preoccupied (sometimes downright grumpy), and I just wanted Santa to come. Still I was determined that when I had children of my own, things would be different.
When my kids were little I started a tradition of putting out finger food for dinner on Christmas Eve. I originally did it for expediency. I had a pile of people to feed, I didn’t want to cook (I had several days of cooking ahead of me) and I needed something fast so we could eat and get to an early church service. So I raided the fridge of what I had on hand: veggies and dip, smoked salmon, crackers and cheese, hummus and olives, and I heated up a few not-so-healthy things I’d made ahead: chicken fingers (because I knew my picky son would eat them); perogies (my picky mother-in-law would eat them), and coconut crusted shrimp (because we all loved them). I put on the carols, dimmed the lights, lit dozens of candles and called everyone in to eat. My daughter christened the event ‘a picky dinner’ and we’ve done it ever since.
However, what started out as a fast, easy way to get a meal on the table has evolved as more friends have joined the celebration. These days, we’re as likely to put French Canadian tourtiere on the table as we are Indian pakoras or Indonesian satay skewers. But whatever we serve, Christmas Eve now epitomizes what the holiday means to me. It’s a time of friends and family, wonderful music and candlelight, good food and spiritual fellowship. It’s as special and as relaxed as I wanted it to be back when I was a child. Only now I never want the evening to end.