By Mary Ellen Christy
The week before Thanksgiving, the “Talking Heads” on television were gleefully predicting the cancellation of the Holiday Season as the coup de grace for 2020. I thought: Not so fast. Do not sell the people of Faith Communities short. Everyone has done a marvelous job of pulling together to battle this dreadful virus and they are sorely in need of the Faith, Hope, and Love that are an integral part of both Hanukkah and Christmas. Our houses of worship are for the most part closed, so these celebrations will be enthusiastically celebrated at home. What surprises me is how little they understand about these unique festivities. Both have been celebrated for thousands of years by the faithful and have survived intact under far more threatening circumstances. One silver lining of 2020 is the return of a simpler and faith-based observance of each of these holidays within our homes and as families.
Closure of so many places has had a negative effect on the lives of all of us, but not particularly on children and their families. Hanukkah has always been a holiday celebrated at home and within the context of the family. Christmas has been so greatly commercialized and dominated by fancy parties and extravagant gifts that the miracle represented by the birth of Christ is almost overlooked. Hopefully, in a simpler celebration, we can focus on God’s promises that this birth promised: “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”
Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of God intervening on behalf of the Israelites by making a single day of oil last for eight days when they were under siege by the Maccabees. An article I read suggested that when children ask how it was possible for this to happen, you have the perfect opportunity to explain what a miracle is using a context that is familiar to them. You might tell the children “the electricity has gone off and you have only enough bars on your cell phones to last one day but when you prayed to God, he performed a miracle and your phone had power for 8 full days.”
Both the story of Christmas and the story of Hanukkah represent the fulfillment of God’s promise and the performing of a miracle. Children participate in the lighting of the candles in the menorah using the shamash candle (9th candle that lights the others). They join their family in singing in Hebrew, playing a game with their dreidel (spinning top), and receiving gelt (chocolate coins). Children also receive one gift per night as a symbol of each of the 8 days and children participate in the making of latkes – the traditional potato pancakes which can also be made from beets and sweet potatoes. They are quickly fried and served with applesauce and sour cream.
Children love the telling and retelling of stories and these are both stories that must be kept and retold. Both involve candles; one to symbolize light as protection and the other to a new life and light which will end the darkness.
My personal faith tradition is to celebrate Christmas. We began our celebration on the first of December when the children opened the first door of their Advent Calendar. During the weeks of Advent, we like to gather together as a family and make gingerbread houses with each child making their own and then taking them home to be part of their own family’s decorations. Children love making cookies. You may want to augment your gingerbread house with dinosaur cookies and then it becomes a Jurassic Park House. There are no mistakes in gingerbread architecture. It is all about engagement.
I love making cookies with my grandchildren. I invited them over for a cookie bake and overnight party. It works best if you prepare most of the cookie dough before they arrive and prepare one together so they have the fun of measuring and mixing. I also have some cookies baked in advance so there are plenty to nibble on. A favorite of ours are snowman sugar cookies. I modify a basic sugar cookie by adding cream cheese for part of the butter and almond extract for part of the vanilla extract. This adds a macaroon like consistency and flavor. The best part of this recipe is that smaller children can do most of it themselves. After chilling the dough for 30 minutes, each child is given a melon baller to create three equal balls which they roll between their palms and then place on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. The parchment paper keeps the cookies from sticking but also allows you to transfer the cookies quickly and safely while still warm which is essential so the children can add the hats, eyes, and buttons and have them stick to the cookies. Each child is given a cookie tin to take home to their parents. Then we have a kid friendly meal together.
I preset the table with lots of tiny tabletop trees, Santa, reindeer salt and pepper shakers, and candles (which remain unlit for obvious reasons). All these little objects can be touched and moved around as they create their own stories. Then we watch a movie together – something like Elf or Polar Express and everyone puts on their Christmas pajamas. The older ones read stories to the younger ones and everyone goes to sleep, hopefully. Their parents pick them up around noon the next day after a festive breakfast and I lie down for a long winter’s nap.
Since everyone is spending a lot more time at home this year, they are much more focused on decorating their homes for the holidays. It is lots of fun to encourage children to help with this and even to decorate their own rooms. It could be something as simple as tying bright red ribbons as bows or scarves around the neck of their Teddy Bears or decorating dollhouses, toy garages, or even something they have built out of Lincoln Logs. You can make wreaths out of construction paper or as you can see in the photo of this dollhouse, we used the tiny wreaths that fit around the base of a candle to catch the wax. Tiny Christmas trees can be purchased at craft stores or online and I even have some that in a former life were place-card holders. They are especially “fancy” because they have stars at the top which were intended to hold the place-cards.
Children also love to make winter scenes which can easily be made on shoebox tops. You might want to make available some scrap branches from the Christmas tree, marshmallows for snowmen, shredded coconut for snow, and pretzel rods to make fences. You will need a lot of Elmer’s glue!
One thing I rediscovered this year is the Gum Drop Tree which always sat on the sideboard of my childhood dining room. They are available in clear plastic for $30.00 at the Vermont Country Store. They come with gumdrops in assorted colors, so you will want to pick up a number of bags of red, green, and white gumdrops. I suggest Target or Walgreens for the gumdrops. They are easy to make and will delight children of every age, including those who are only young at heart.
A last decorative suggestion that will also fascinate and delight is to make dried citrus ornaments. These are simple, inexpensive, and will add a delightful scent to your home when hung on trees, nestled in garland, or gathered in bowls of nuts. Select a large orange and a large lemon. Slice them in very thin slices and place them on a cookie sheet either on a rack or a sheet of parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees and roast for 4-6 hours. After the slices have cooled down, use a needle threaded with thin gold cord to create loops for hangers.
For those who celebrate Christmas, the real star of the show is Christmas Eve. Although most of us will not be able to attend services in our own church, we can easily honor the best of our traditions by planning an evening that includes a teaching of the Christmas Story from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I plan to do so using a lovely book I purchased many years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Story of Christmas. It is beautifully illustrated with paintings from the museum’s collection. Another suggestion is to print off copies of the passages from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from the internet and ask people to take turns reading out loud.
Christmas crackers are a must at the table. These are the colorful tube-like decorations that make a snapping sound when pulled open. This is a British tradition. This year I am delighted to have found some that stand up and are shaped like Christmas trees. This is a distinct advantage on an already crowded Christmas table and provides a festive mood as everyone dons their paper crowns and reads aloud their fortune.
After dinner, we will gather to sing a few holiday carols. We will use a lovely book of carols with illustrations from the National Gallery of Art. Since there will be no opportunity to sing these carols accompanied by the organ at our church, we will use recorded music and pull the lyrics up on our “Smart” phones.
Just before bedtime one of the adults will read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Milk and cookies will be laid out for Santa with a note of gratitude and of course a carrot for Rudolph.
This year more than any other, people are giving gifts that are consumables and many are handmade. One gift that I received from a friend, who lives on a farm in Indiana included a jar of honey from her own beehives. This is something symbolic, as well as a treat that I will enjoy both when I add it to my tea and scones and most certainly when I use the recipe she provided to prepare a cocktail recipe she included called Sing Like the Bees:
2 oz earl grey tea infused with gin
3/4 oz fresh squeezed orange juice
1/2 ounce of honey
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice
Strain into a glass with a twist of orange
It sounds to me like this special drink might be good for whatever is ailing you!
Happy Holidays to all, and very warm wishes for Peace, Love, Health, Happiness, and most of all “Freedom from Fear” in 2021.