Ellie S. Grossman | Mishegas of Motherhood Surviving the holidays requires a twist on tradition

I’ve gotten smarter over the years, especially when it comes to preparing for Hanukkah, the seasonal celebration that reminds us of the wondrous miracles that occurred long ago. It’s a miracle all right that I get everything done, from buying presents and baking cookies to planning parties and decorating my home. Hanukkah, the Hebrew word for “dedication,” was never meant to emphasize such extravagant gift giving, but I can’t help myself. Even though the true meaning of Hanukkah is seen in the light of the menorah, which reminds us to never take for granted our religious freedom, I overindulge anyway.

Fortunately, I’ve figured out a way to survive this hectic time of year. Go on a cruise. Nah, just kidding. All it takes is a little creativity and preparation.

For one thing, I no longer wait until the last minute to shop for presents. Depending on when the Festival of Lights falls on the calendar, I begin my buying spree around the time my jack-o-lanterns grow fuzz on their shriveled grins. Usually the first items on my gift list are practical ones, such as cozy turtlenecks, furry socks, warm pajamas, brand new thermal underwear, and coordinating sets of hats, gloves, and scarves in preparation for the first sleigh ride of the season. I ignore the fact that Jack and Sari rarely wear appropriate winter clothing, especially anything decorated in stripes and polka dots. They’d rather freeze than look uncool.

Another trick that I’ve learned is to wrap the presents as soon as I buy them and while I still have energy left to curl ribbon. I set up a gift wrapping station in my closet and organize all my supplies, including plenty of wrapping paper with dreidels and stars, colorful tissues, gift bags, stickers, scissors, tape, nametags, and bows of all size. For a special touch, my intention is to decorate the top of each present with gelt, but sometimes I can’t resist my sweet tooth and savor the chocolate coins for myself.

After I wrap each trinket, I scribble a secret code, such as a word written backwards, on the bottom of the present. That way I don’t forget what’s hidden inside. For example, I write “emag oediv” for “video game” and “sffumrae” for “earmuffs.” Some letters are easier to decode than others, such as “dopi” for “ipod.” Usually my kids don’t notice the clues because they’re too distracted trying to guess the contents by shaking their presents violently. Sari, who is particularly observant, spots a word and tries to figure it out. I warn her that she’s only spoiling her surprise. I need to come up with a better plan for next year, by the way, before my kids favor dyslexia.

I admit that my efficiency is sometimes a fault, and I get caught up in the excitement of the holiday. Instead of hiding the presents in a dark closet, this year I decide to display the beautifully wrapped packages around the fireplace before Hanukkah officially starts. Big mistake. Everyday after school my kids recount the presents in their pile and compare who got more. Not surprisingly, they nudge me to let them open one. When I notice a torn piece of wrapping paper that covers Sari’s book she blames our dog Luci. I don’t know how people who celebrate Christmas leave all those presents under the tree for so long without any riots breaking out.

The other night, Jack somehow convinces me that it’s okay to open a present ahead of time. At first I tell him no way, even though I’m anxious myself to give them their new toys that I bought two months ago. “It’s sacrilegious to open a gift before the first candle is lit,” I try to explain to him, but he doesn’t give up.

“Hanukkah is actually one of the few Jewish holidays that isn’t mentioned in the Torah, Mom. God forgives you for giving us a present now,” he rationalizes.

I can’t argue with the facts. Actually, Hanukkah commemorates a post-biblical event, the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek rulers of Jerusalem and the subsequent rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE. Needless to say, I’m so impressed with my son’s knowledge of the origin of the Hanukkah story that I give him whatever he wants, even cookie dough ice cream before dinner.

Another way that I try to make the holidays simpler is to spend less time in the kitchen and more quality time with family and friends. Although I like to cook, I gave up making latkes from scratch this year. In the past, I would grate potatoes until my knuckles bled and peel so many onions that I couldn’t stop crying. Sure, the mouthwatering aroma of crisp potato pancakes sizzling in extra virgin olive oil is desirable for a day, but when the heavy, greasy smell permeates my hair, skin, clothes, and entire house for more than a week it’s enough already. I understand that oil is most significant at Hanukkah. It symbolizes the miracle that the little cruse of oil in the Temple burned brightly for eight days. Still, the fried foods, including sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts, taunt my cholesterol.

So to make life a little simpler at Hanukkah time, I use frozen hash browns and add onions, eggs, and matzah meal. Better still, I buy frozen potato pancakes already made from the kosher butcher. I bake the golden brown latkes on a cookie sheet and save myself from washing so many fry pans. When topped with gobs of sour cream and applesauce nobody knows the difference.

Best of all, with these modern traditions, I have more time to spin the dreidel.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. The month of December makes her head spin like a dreidel. Feel free to send any comments to: [email protected] or visit her website at www.mishegasofmotherhood.com.