Meredith Carroll: Meredith Pro Tem
December 5, 2008
For most Reform Jews, Hanukkah is an occasion to simply gather with family, light the menorah and eat. Not to diminish the accomplishments of Judah, the Maccabees and that miraculous drop of oil (back when trans fat was revered instead of reviled), but technically its a relatively minor happening on the Hebrew calendar thats presumed by many non-Jews to be major because of its proximity to Christmas.When non-Jews wish us a Happy Hanukkah and ask about our plans, we smile politely and play along so as to not embarrass them for assuming that just because they have a big holiday in December that our December holiday must be religiously noteworthy, too. Its kind of like wishing friends a happy Flag Day and asking where theyll be celebrating the broad stripes and bright stars.As a kid, however, Hanukkah felt significant not because of the story of the Jewish struggle for religious freedom and national survival, but because along the way someone inexplicably added presents to the tradition that previously only included potato latkes, a spinning top and chocolate shaped liked coins and wrapped in gold foil (which is not to disparage fried potatoes and chocolate wrapped in gold foil, both of which are always deeply appreciated). To a child, any occasion that includes eight gifts is definitely an Occasion.My family never commemorated the Festival of Lights with a bush or by writing letters to an elusive fairy. No, our custom was the Hess Toy Truck. My dad started buying them for my sister and me for Hanukkah when we were toddlers. Every year in early December hed start singing, The Hess Trucks back, and its better than ever! Even though hed always stash the trucks in plain sight in the shoe rack in the front of his closet until my mom got around to wrapping them, my sister and I would feign surprise when one of our gifts was in a wrapped rectangular box just about the size of a Hess Truck.I cant quite explain why two girls who had an impressive collection of Cabbage Patch Dolls also had a fascination with toy oil tankers, but we were thrilled to play with the trucks my dad bought for us at the Hess gas station in town. That is, until he realized that vintage Hess Trucks were selling for small fortunes at toy auctions. So he stopped letting us play with them and instead insisted they sit untouched in their original boxes. (Which was actually not tragic since it around that same time that my sister and I started realizing that as cool as the Hess Patrol Car was, that maybe we were a little too old and girly to actually keep playing with it.)Hanukkah fell just a few days after Thanksgiving my freshman year in college. Since I wouldnt be able to make it home for the occasion, my mom sent me back to school with eight gifts a consolation prize for missing out on her latkes that are so good that grown men frequently weep while eating them (and the tears have nothing to do with how many onions go into the batter, either). Each gift had a note with a clue to the next nights treasure. Getting to read clever messages and open up precious trinkets that only my mom could know I wanted was the greatest gift ever. The only thing cooler was the Hanukkah when my big gift was Bubble Gum the guinea pig (named for its pink nose I was a clever four-year-old, nest-ce pas?).Now that I have a brand new baby, Ive been bitten by the Hanukkah bug all over again and want to recreate the magic I felt as a little girl for my daughter. Other than lighting the menorah and taking a stab at frying up some latkes, well be celebrating Hanukkah with gifts. Since she hasnt started writing yet, Ive made a list for her. A Madame Alexander Cinderella doll like the one I used to have. A hand-painted Limoges porcelain box. Books. Toys. A sled. Im not sure Ill be able to squeeze everything into eight nights.My mom remarked that, at four months old, the only thing that means something to my daughter is a warm bottle and that maybe I should hold off on anything more elaborate until shes a little older. But even though Hanukkah may not be the most significant in the grand scheme of Judaism, Id hate to break with tradition now. Even if that just means a bottle of milk or a Hess Truck.
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