In my large family, buying for five brothers and sisters, their spouses and children, parents and in-laws, cousins, aunts, uncles and never least. . .friends and co- workers- wasn’t just exhausting, but financially overwhelming. Especially when all that effort rarely succeeded in finding a gift others really wanted.
How many times have you worked so hard to find that perfect gift, just to be politely shut down when it’s opened. “Oh, what a nice. . .bowl,” my mother once said after I scoured the stores to find the “just right” bowl she had lamented every year was needed to serve the crowd of people who descended on her house.
More often, our hard fought treasures are returned or relegated to closets collecting dust. Or worse, totaling ignored by youngsters who have no filter and say exactly what they’re feeling, “I didn’t want that doll!” while tears stream down their faces.
For those of us who celebrate Hanukkah- an eight day event- it can be even more daunting. Out of desperation, a few of us begged to change up the routine. Anything to stop the horror and angst that would fill us as the end of the year approached. Why were gifts the focus of the holidays? Why not the gathering of an extended family rarely seen any other time of the year? In my home, eight days of trying to outshine the previous day, until finally, the best and brightest was unveiled, had to change. It morphed into seven days of silly baubles until the last candle was lit and only one special gift was unwrapped.
All too often, it turned out the silly dollar gifts were the best received. I remember playing dreidel- a Hanukkah spinning toy, or jacks, for hours. One night, we set up plastic 1-2 inch toy dinosaurs at the end of a hallway and took turns knocking them down with marbles like we were bowling. Another night, we hit a balloon around the room, the winner keeping it in the air the longest. When the number surpassed 30 participants my mother finally succumbed.
With her stamp of approval we gathered to cook and make special holiday treats, like potato latkes (similar to hash brown potatoes). My grandmother used to make Komish bread. Since I had spent time learning by her side that famous recipe was brought back. An experience and taste we’d missed for years. While cooking we’d each take turns sharing stories of those long gone, helping little ones to understand their amazing ancestry. This started new traditions and made special memories I cherish to this day.
Only children under the age of 18 received gifts. Each adult plucked a name, along with their wish list, out of a hat. In the old days there was never parity. Some would invest hours and money picking out the perfect gift for dozens of kids while others clearly just went to Walgreens on the way over. Now everyone was happy because they received exactly what they’d requested. Initially we did the same for all the adults until someone suggested we exchange “white elephant” gifts instead.
Suddenly the famous Aunt who always gave the “gift with purchase” she received when buying cosmetics for herself, was funny and cute. Every adult who brought a gift to participate pulled a number written on a scrap of paper from a bowl- yep, it was the very one I’d given my mother years before! Then number 1 picked randomly from the pile of wrapped gifts. Each number followed. Once viewed, you could keep what you’d chosen or go around to all the recently opened gifts and swap for any of the others. The last number was best of all- that person had their pick of all the presents. Laughter to the point of tears often resulted when someone tried to hide that ridiculous cosmetic “extra” no one had ever wanted before but was far preferable to old VHS tapes of cartoons. Those are the memories my daughter and I still enjoy to this day. It turned our holidays around. The stress and anxiety was gone, replaced with relaxation and joy.
Every year, toys that had been left in the closet untouched, along with cash anyone could privately and unceremoniously put into a hat kept at the door, were donated. The evening always ended with games. All types depending on who attended and their ages. When younger, this was my daughter’s favorite part of the festivities. Feeling a part of the family, bonding with the adults and giggling over a faux pax even she’d never do when drawing a scene for Pictionary or playing charades was priceless. The one ups manship of years past were over.
Regardless of our successes or difficulties we could all participate equally and bond as a family. Time became the greatest gift of all. They made us value the holidays for what they were meant to be-making new traditions, sharing old ones and coming together to appreciate the people we love.
I wish everyone a healthy and happy holiday.