Happy Monika

Each year I have the best Hanukkah intentions. I buy the candles–generally at the last minute and often with some difficulty–and light them. Most nights.

Okay, so some nights. I typically get some great momentum through about night 3, forget nights 4 through 6, come back strong with night 7, and then night 8 escapes me completely. And the one good thing about this is that the pack of candles, which is supposed to last for 8 nights, ends up lasting two years.

A Hanukkah miracle!

(Jews will get that one.)

But this year something different happened. As I was busy describing the joys of Christmas and tree-decorating and ornaments and caroling to Thalia (my dad always called us “Christmas Tree Jews” – I think it’s a NYC thing) something latent and buried in my secular Jewish soul rose up within me and implored me to do this thing right for a change.

The first night of Hanukkah I ran out and procured some matzoh ball soup, a few latkes (potato pancakes for the uninitiated) and a little bag of chocolate coins which I set out on the table with the dreidels. I read Thalia a little book about Hanukkah which described it all better than I could. Who even knew that you’re supposed to eat jelly donuts because they’re fried in oil? I wonder what the Torah has to say about trans-fats.

While Sage simply squealed at the candles the way Thalia did in the two Decembers past, this year my almost 2 1/2 year-old was old enough to repeat after me, in the most heartbreakingly adorable, tentative, sweet way, the blessing over the candles, made only more endearing in that she can’t quite say Hannukah and instead says Monika, her sitter’s name.

This blessing business, this was the point in the evening that Nate the angry atheist folded his arms and looked away. And I had to explain to him that no, it wasn’t particularly religious for me, even while the prayer mentions God, but it was tradition. Hard for him to understand, I pointed him here which helped me explain that this prayer, this series of rituals, make up the collective mythology and folklore that define who I am and where I come from and who our daughters are too. And I want them to know this. It’s not about whether God is or isn’t. It’s about me. It’s about family. It’s about participating in something greater than ourselves.

We have to start here. We have to start with the traditional stuff and see where it evolves and how it becomes our own. Because to me, that’s where holidays develop real meaning.

Maybe it becomes about a new dreidel game that we invent. (This year the rules were along the lines of: Spin the dreidel and…Thalia Wins! Thalia gets all the candy!) Or maybe it becomes about saying the prayer with Monika instead of Hannukah. Maybe it becomes about yelling at daddy to come back to the table for the blessing each night. I don’t know. I won’t know. Not yet. We’re only just beginning. But I want Hanukkah to be a real part of our holiday traditions from now on if only in a small way.

And so we continued to light those candles, for maybe the first time in my adult life, every single night.

Except last night. Last night we forgot.

Last night we were too busy decorating the Christmas tree.

First thing this morning, it was Thalia who reminded me.”Well what the heck,” I said, scraping the congealed wax out of the Menorah as I sat Thalia down at the table next to her sister with a bowl of cereal and milk. “We can light them now and we’ll eat breakfast by candlelight.”

I emptied out the remaining candles purchased last year, and finding us just one short, I dug out the new pack that I never assumed I’d need this year. I retrieved one shorter, mismatched yellow candle and used it to light the others, before placing it right in the center of the Menorah, against all protocol.

The last candle flickered out about 8:40 this morning.

Funny enough, if we keep it up next year, remembering every single night, we’ll be one candle short on the last night all over again.

I sense the beginning of a tradition.

…l’hadlik neir shel Monika.

41 thoughts on “Happy Monika”

  1. LOL. Your post made me so happy: We missed the eighth night because we were out SHOPPING for our Christmas tree. Next year, you and your kids may enjoy watching The Rugrats Chanukah episode (unfortunately, only available on VHS). It sometimes comes bundled with their Passover ep. Best explanation I’ve ever seen of both holidays (for both kids and gentile adults), and funny.

  2. Yes, but, does she say “Baruch atah Adenoid”?” Because that would be all kinds of awesome.I like your new tradition (and I love the menorah, very pretty). 🙂

  3. Ooh! I have the same place mats!Back to the topic. I know what you mean. Doing Christmas is the same for me. It’s not religious for me, but it is tradition.

  4. This was so lovely. I agree, holidays are about creating the traditions that bind your new family and that also link you to those before. It isn’t always about the deity.I told The Poo the story of Jesus’ birth this weekend, and watching her take it in really shook something inside my heart.Happy holidays to you, no matter what the flavor.

  5. Gorgeous gorgeous photo, honey. Bossy’s big night of Hanukkah celebration this year was the third night when she made a brisket and fried latkes… and then promptly put the latkes in the oven to keep warm while the family went out to purchase the christmas tree… and then once home the family lit the menorah, sang, then hit ‘Play’ on the Rat Pack Christmas CD.

  6. Take it from a Catholic/lapsed-Catholic/Ex-communicated Catholic/Daughter of a Muslim.The best traditions are the ones that make your family who they are.

  7. Happy Monika! “And the one good thing about this is that the pack of candles, which is supposed to last for 8 nights, ends up lasting two years.A Hanukkah miracle!”That made me burst out laughing, almost choking on caramel popcorn. I’m not Jewish, but I know the story of Hanukkah, and that was very funny.I totally agree that you have to take the religion/myths/folklore/traditions you grew up with and make them your own for your family. Sounds like you are on your way! Thanks for sharing this.

  8. I grew up Unitarian (am not Christian) and have go keep rationalizing to my husband why I celebrate Christmas. I don’t celebrate Jesus’ birth, I celebrate Santa and Peace on Earth (so drop it, DH) Then, this year my 6yo came home from his UU Sunday school class with a dreidel and wanted to celebrate Hanukkah. Ok by me. I Googled a menu, cooked a brisket in the slow cooker and made latkes (from scratch!). We made a menorah out of nine tea lights on a piece of blue construction paper. We sat down at our Santa Claus placemats and (not knowing a blessing) said “L’Chaim”. All in all, I’d say it was a fabulous Unitarian Universalist holiday.

  9. Honestly, it’s those beautiful traditions that make me enjoy religion, regardless of what exactly you believe — those are so steeped in history that I think it’s wonderful for kids to experience them.We’re trying to come up with a few of our own here that don’t involve throwing beer cans under a lit Christmas tree.It is the South, afterall.

  10. I read somewhere about a family that celebrates all Christian, Jewish and Muslim holidays. I always thought that sounded fabulous. I think you’re off to a great start!

  11. This atheist secular Jew understands that the blessings are just words. It’s all about tradition, and connecting your children to 5000+ years of Jewish heritage. And as far as forgetting to light them some nights, you’ve only got another year or perhaps two at most before Thalia puts a stop to that. My poor husband was getting mauled the second he walked in the door by two human torpedos (ages 4 and nearly 7) screaming “Daddy’s home! Hannukah time! before bowling him over in their haste to get things started.And while I deplore the teaching of religion as fact that takes place even in the secular schools, I have to admit to secretly liking the fact that my son’s spelling words this week were all about Hannukah, that the traditions they’re pushing are his own.

  12. Monika’s good, I’ll give you that–but Christmaskah might be more on point. Either way it’s all about what’s REALLY important–PRESENTS.

  13. That is such a sweet and beautiful story!I actually immediately, totally got your candle miracle joke, despite being a non-Jew, thanks to the fact that my high school was something like 25% Jewish.So why is Mr.-Angry-Atheist-Man okay with the Christmas Tree Formerly Known as Pagan Yule Tree solstice-welcoming ceremony, but not with the ritual blessing of candles? Hmmmm? I think you need to lighten up, Nate, before Saint Nicholas leaves some coal in your stocking.

  14. Not only is this beautiful and heart-warming, but it also sounds so <>right<> to me. We are a household of six rather busy people, but every year Mom pulls out the Menorah and we <>try<> to light the candles every night. This year, I had to pull out my calendar to make sure eight days had indeed gone by. It was in fact a Christian friend who pointed out that it was the last day yesterday.So yes, I support your way. Happy Monika!

  15. I know I’m hormonal when I get all teary reading posts about the holidays. All holidays.While I see where Nate’s coming from, I have to counter that there’s no reason to cheat yourself out of tradition, beauty, and enjoyment by taking a literal interpretation to the holidays – whether it’s saying a blessing over the menorah or listening to religious carols.

  16. My favorite Chanukah was spent in Israel, the only place where there’s no competition with Christmas. Just before the holiday begins Sofganiot peddlers appear selling jelly doughnuts. That’s how I found out what sofganiot means. As an adult, I love lighting my very cool menorah, probably even more than when I was a kid. And yes, it’s all about ritual and family.

  17. Maybe it will give Nate some satisfaction to know that your hanukiyot isn’t kosher (all the candles must be at the same height with only the shamash taller than the others in order for it to be kosher) so it doesn’t REALLY count. Not that anyone cares or anything, but at least he’ll be happy that it’s all really just tradition and not real prayers. I love sufganiyot and you can make them yourself without transfats. Or head to a kosher dunkin donuts. That’s what we do.

  18. This is the first year we made it through nearly every night, too. We missed night 6 because we weren’t home until late, but Aaron remembered every other night. He even got Cordy to help him light the candles on the last night. I just stand back and let him do it, since I don’t know the blessing or anything about how it’s done. And after we light the candles, we then turn on the Christmas tree lights. We’re Chrismukkah like that, too.

  19. This is the first night we attempted Chanukah, and all was well until Night 4, when the heat from the candles melted the shamash into a gravity-defying twisty mess. I admit to having to look up the prayers on the internet because it’s been so long, but it was awesome hearing DS asking to light the “Anorah.”Totally agree about the tradition linking us to ancestors, and to sharing a part of our childhood with our own children is amazing.The best part? I didn’t tell the kids that you’re supposed to get EIGHT NIGHTS OF GIFTS! They’ll just have to wait for Christmas!

  20. You are amazing, Liz. You manage to be funny and touching and charming all at once.Holiday smooches. Will Nate celebrate Festivus?

  21. you’re right, it’s not always about religion–sometimes it’s about tradition. which is why i, another angry atheist, have a nativity (ceramic teddy bears but a nativity all the same) and sing christmas carols and cry every year after charlie brown gets uplifted by linus’ recital.

  22. My friend is Jewish, and they’re sephardic, and the donuts are big for them. Don’t know about other Jews. 🙂If you are Christmas Tree Jews, we are Hanukkah Menorah and Christmas Tree Atheists, and here’s a pretty cute video of our then 10-year old daughter, Maya, singing the Hanukkah song. 🙂http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgtCRsWjsCoEnjoy!(and for us, as atheists, it is clearly not about the religion. It is about teaching our child about other cultures, and having fun whenever the hell we can, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, whatever.)

  23. Love your post. As a Catholic whose Advent Wreath is sitting there, not a candle lit the past two Sundays because I kept forgetting to buy the candles! It is about tradition and family traditions and love.

  24. Great post, Liz. My husband is an atheist, but he doesn’t mind my putting a Nativity out for Christmas. Or explaining the story of Jesus being born in the manger to Nathan. But I do feel conflicted about the whole thing. Happy Monica!P.S. I have no idea how to leave this comment. I keep getting a pop-up box that is asking me to “Update extracted perameters”-huh?

  25. Our problem isn’t that we forget to light the candles, our problem is we forget where we put the candles last year. So every year I buy another box of candles. We may have more candles in our house than years and years of nights!As for the Hebrew prayers. I remember one Passover when my son asked me “Why do we sing a song about Ay-nu dying? That’s not nice.” Why he totally skipped the whole “slaying of the first born” still puzzles me completely.We also had Chanuka trauma. I live blogged our evening on DC Metro Moms. I was making latkes and realized my band aide had fallen off. Did I shred it in the food processor wtih the potatoes? Dunno.We made the latkes and smelled no burning plastic, so I think they were okay.

  26. I had a comment all typed out and then ‘poof’ my computer ate it. Just wanted to say that we ‘celebrate’ Hannukah this year by making latkes and playing the Dreidel game. I meant to light a candle in a potato, but forgot—to understand what I mean, you should read “One Candle”—which is more about tradition, family and faith than ‘religion’.

  27. I only remembered to light the menorah the first three lights, but I lit them on our new, bad ass racing car menorah!

  28. That was lovely…and just what I’d do if/when I have kids, even though I’m a “holiday jew”. My brother, sister and I always sing “let’s eat!” right after the last word of the prayer…it’s something we’ve done since we were little, and it always cracks us up.

  29. I love the Hanukkah miracle reference. On another note I just received a spammy like email from a guy who mentions as one of his interests “people-centered Jewishness” and lists a local congregation here in Atlanta to which he’s a member. Who would have thunk that even atheist Jews congregate? I guess no matter how hard you try, you still can’t shake the guilt?

  30. What a great post. I think that’s the best thing about Chanukah (Hah-kah at my house) – is that it isn’t the most religious holiday so you can have fun with it and not have to deal with the Jewish guilt!

  31. My Catholic daughter helps her Jewish aunt light the candles every year and looks forward to doing so. She also has her own dreidel. Because you’re right, it’s not necessarily about whose god is right, or if there even is one, it’s about traditions. And I want her to understand that in some very real ways, ours spring from yours. After all, as she told us last year, “I bet Jesus liked playing dreidle too!”

  32. i wasn’t going to propogate the santa myth, but it’s coming in handy to say, “santa would want you to do what mommy is asking.”my daughter’s name rhymes with monika + hannuka,chanuka,hanukka + sometimes bananaka. my husband had our daughter put some grass in a shoe, plus some water in a bowl for the dutch santa claus that comes a few days early + leaves 1 present. btw, congratulations, you won $100 conservation international gift card credit. i’m about to email you happy new year to the planet 🙂

  33. Oh Happy Monika – that is too cute! J asked me out of the blue today if we can celebrate Hannukah next year (no Jews in our family anywhere as far as I know). Totally cracked me up — I said, sure. Are we allowed to do that? 😉

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