It's that time of year again! The virtual misteltoe is hung and just as I did last year during the holiday season, I will be hosting an open house throughout the month of December, with authors stopping by Book Club Girl all month long for a glass of virtual eggnogg and a cyber cookie as they share their holiday traditions and memories with us. You can take a look at some of last year's posts here, which include Adriana Trigiani's awesome decorating traditions, Katrina Kittle's amazing post about her mother's ornament collection and Robin Antalek's recollection of the children's book that started an annual family tradition.
We start this year's Holiday Open House with a Hanukkah post from Ilie Ruby, author of The Language of Trees.
The Hanukkah Bush and Hunt
I grew up in a rather nontraditional Jewish family, yet one with many traditions. Each year at holiday time my siblings and I experienced a unique fusion of Hanukkah rituals and Christmas festivities. Amidst the amalgamation of chaos, excitement, and dread of Santa’s reindeer and friends, I always looked forward to two customs, in particular, the “Hanukkah Bush” and “Hanukkah Hunt”. To call a spade a spade, the “bush” was a Christmas Tree, a blue spruce, always the biggest tree on the lot. It stood regally in my father’s grand living room reaching high into the Victorian ceilings, gloriously festooned with glass bulb ornaments painted in Israeli colors (blue and white), its branches made heavy with lights, bows, strings of popcorn, small Israeli flags, toy dreidels, and heaps of blue and silver tinsel, as if to coat it with Judaism in case there was any question.
Each year, after my sister and I had fashioned a hefty Jewish Star out of tinfoil, popsicle sticks, and tree branches criss-crossed in two overlapping triangles held together with colored yarn, my father would climb a ladder, and plunk down our six-pointed star at the top of the tree, ultimately holding it in place with duct tape. To add to this occasionally explosive fusion, the constellation of guests at the Christmas Eve dinner table was ever changing, but always included my aunts, uncles and cousins, orphaned family friends that—after too much eggnog—would stay for 3 or 4 days, along with my father’s newest romantic interest, and her child(ren), along with her relatives. You might have found at the table one or two of my father’s ex-wives, past girlfriends and their children, and an assemblage of distant “relatives”, some of whom had been coming for years, and were not related to us by blood and no longer by marriage, yet who had become part of the tapestry of our family events, far outlasting their initial connections.
Truth be told, the only consistency in our family was that our family was consistently in flux. We could actually never predict who would be at the holiday dinner table that year for turkey, my grandmother’s potato latkes, her dreamy mashed potatoes, cranberry dressing, pies and eggnog. Yet, we always knew it would be a lively group, and I always knew that everyone who was there really wanted to be there.
Thankfully Hanukkah often started before Christmas so we held fast to our Jewish heritage before the chaos ensued, celebrating Hanukkah with Hebrew prayers said over lit candles in a beautiful silver menorah. Each year on the first night of Hanukkah my father staged the Hanukkah Hunt. It was, in fact, a treasure hunt created by my father just for his children, with clues he had written and hid around the house, each one a rhyme, leading us from one gift to the next gift. We’d tear through the rooms of his 200-year old house, collecting our gifts, eager to find the last clue that led to a large beautifully wrapped box. Inside this box there was another wrapped box, and inside that, another box, and another. Inside the smallest box there was a special present for each of us. Jackpot.
I don’t remember any of the presents of my past. Not one. But those big trees festooned in blue and white are burned in my memory. That, and the hunt—the care my father took in writing clues, the time he spent hiding gifts after we had gone to bed, the fact that after several failed marriages and broken relationships he still found the wherewithal to beautifully wrap a box inside a box inside a box and put a bow on top. That was a feat in itself, I know now. But back then, it was just something special I could count on, made just for me and my siblings, before the holiday crowd showed up with holiday cheer, to partake in our boisterous and welcoming home full of nontraditional traditions.