Rewriting Holiday Traditions

Reader Contribution by Ilene White Freedman
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For the past couple generations, exchanging gifts has been a featured Chanukah activity, just as it is for Christmas. There are other things to do—playing the dreidle game, making potato latkes, lighting the menorah, but let’s not fool anyone—the spotlight shines on receiving gifts each night of Chanukah.

When I was a kid, we lit our Menorah every evening of Chanukah and we each opened a present.

There are eight nights of Chanukah, so one night the gift might be a pair of socks. But still, a gift each night. When my kids were young, I carefully wrapped small gifts for each night of Chanukah, passing on my family’s tradition. Just like in my childhood, we lit the Menorah and sang Chanukah songs and the kids opened a little gift each night.

Gifts can be nice, but we all know how materialism can take center stage for the holidays. I was surprised to get crankiness from my child on night three. And he didn’t even receive socks. I realized that the gift did not satisfy. It needed to be a better gift, something as much fun as the first gift, to offer a more entertaining evening.

That’s a lot of pressure for a little gift. Eight nights in a row.

The materialism of the activity needed to shine brighter in order to entertain. Often, acquiring stuff is just not as fun as we want it to be. And I want my holiday traditions to be about gathering together, not gathering stuff. So, a Jewish girl in a Grinch’s overcoat, I stole the spotlight from the gift and shined it on the family activity.

Here’s what I did to Chanukah.

We decided the next year would be different. It would be about entertainment and enjoying company, not about gifts. So we set up a calendar of activities, one for each night of Chanukah. We would light the Menorah and have a fun activity to enjoy together each evening. We had Box Night: we collected big boxes and made a cardboard city. Paper Airplane Night: we made dozens, all sizes. Latke frying Night. Cookie baking Night. Card-making Night with family friends: I pulled out all the inkpads and stamps. And one evening was “Present Night”, with one special gift exchange. We’re not eliminating gifts altogether in our celebration; just taking them off center stage.

Our week was a hit, the kids basked in the attention. They didn’t miss all the gifts. After all, isn’t attention and entertainment together mostly what they are after? The next year, when someone asked my son what he was looking forward to for Chanukah, I listened carefully. My son’s eyes brightened and he said, “Box Night is my favorite, I can’t wait for that night.” Not “this is what I want for Chanukah” but “this is what I want to do on Chanukah”. Success.

My sons are 9 and 11 now, going on our fifth year of our alternative Chanukah tradition. The kids look forward to planning Chanukah each year, a chart of eight evening themes. Box Night has given way to Nerf Weapon Night (think Maccabees), Games Night,  Chanukah candle-dipping night, and another favorite—Rube Goldberg Night.  On Rube Goldberg Night, we set up an elaborate trigger series marble ramp.

One year it included a pulley system through the living room that hit a hammer to trigger the marble down the ramp. Wait ‘til you see what we have planned for this year’s contraption.

Our good friend Mark stopped by on Rube Goldberg Night one year, and had so much fun he asked “Will Rube Goldberg Night always be the third night of Chanukah?” No, but we always try to work Rube Goldberg Night around Mark’s schedule.

There’s a non-profit in Maryland called The Center for the New American Dream. Their mission is to counter commercialization and support community engagement. They tackle such issues as voluntary simplicity, reducing materialism, and creating more meaningful holidays. Check out their SoKind registry project, where you can create a gift registry that focuses on less stuff and more family fun. This site is full of ideas on how to refocus your holiday celebrations.

Have a Happy Chanukah and a Merry Thanksgiving this month!

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at Mother Earth News and, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to