When I was a girl of 5, at Christmastime you got dolls and dishes. If you were Jewish, they added potato pancakes and dreidels (spinning tops) sometime in December. But many smog-covered suns have set since those simple days and now I'm a grandmother with a schizophrenic holiday situation a mile wide.
It is, I suspect, a dilemma experienced by thousands of families these days. The increasing rate of mixed marriages, grown children who live great distances from their parents and a Hanukkah date that arrives each year at a different relationship to Christmas, can push a conscientious grandmother right over the brink.
Some determined women, (grandfathers usually refuse to get involved) have arrived at creative solutions of their own. One told me that when the two holidays coincide, she is permitted to hang glittery foil menorahs and Stars of David among the angels and reindeer on her daughter-in-law's Christmas tree. Another makes latkes (potato pancakes) to serve along with the Christmas ham. Sometimes Hanukkah, which is eight days long, surrounds Christmas day. At these times everything hits at once, and the length and volume of gift giving is enough to make the greediest grandchild glaze over with saturation.
This year I thought I had it made. Hanukkah was due to arrive Dec. 26, the day after Christmas, and my family was coming from Minnesota Dec. 4 to the 14th--in a sort of no man's land of the holiday season. The logical thing, therefore, was to take the path of least resistance, mail off a bunch of presents somewhere in the middle of December and let the vagaries of the postal service decide which occasion they were intended to commemorate.
Instead, I decided to rearrange the calendar. I would simply celebrate Hanukkah on Dec. 5, the day after they arrived. Christmas, I figured, could take place on its usual date, since it had too much advance publicity for even my intervention. The 4-year-old, who was my prime indoctrination target, would never know the difference.
Giving myself such short notice created lots of pressure. Presents had to be bought and wrapped, food cooked ahead and frozen, decorations hung. It's not easy to find wrappings appropriate to Hanukkah at the end of November. I had to settle for any design with lots of blue in it, which turned out to be three penguins on an ice floe.
For the two toddlers, who wouldn't be old enough to light candles on the real menorah (a nine-branched candelabrum), I'd ordered soft stuffed menorahs with Velcro flames. In earlier years, before my sons married Catholic girls, I'd always wondered what fanatic would possibly buy such bizarre items. Now I knew.
Despite the fact that the stuffed menorahs didn't arrive on time, (possibly just as well) the Hanukkah festivities went off on schedule. Our 4-year-old, Ben, defying custom, lit all eight candles at once. Though tradition was taking a bit of a beating, the spirit, I hoped, was still intact.
Heading to the kitchen for a last flurry of pre-dinner activity, I was arrested by loud cries coming from the other room. What on earth was going on? I put down a pan and returned to the dining room just in time to hear my daughter-in-law scolding our 4-year-old. "Go to your room," she ordered, "and stay there 'til you're ready to behave!" My grandson, Ben, ran past me in a storm of tears.
I stood at the door nonplussed. On some disciplinary whim, it seemed, the major participant in my artificial Hanukkah was being banished from the scene. My potato pancakes sizzled in the oven. Penguin paper packages waited in the closet. Silver ornaments twinkled and whirled in the candlelight. All was in readiness, and Ben was confined to quarters. A great rage overtook me.
Propelled by fatigue, anxiety and a glass of white wine on an empty stomach, I exploded. "This is my party!" I shouted indignantly. "It's not for you." I pointed at the adults accusingly, like a demented fury. "It's not even for the babies," I waved my spatula at the toddlers who promptly burst into tears. "They're too young to understand! It's for Ben!" By now my eyes were blazing and my family stared at me in open-mouthed amazement. "I don't care what he's done! I want him out here. Right now!" I stomped from the room and burst into tears.
But mixed families have to be infinitely flexible, and after a moment of stunned silence, my understanding daughter-in-law jumped up and joined me in the kitchen. Amid a barrage of mutual hugs, explanations and apologies, she detached me from my apron and soon herded me back to the dining room. Meanwhile, Ben the culprit had quietly reappeared at the table, announced that he was ready to behave and started on his applesauce.
The rest of the party went off without a hitch, as did the rest of the vacation. Oh yes, two days after my family returned to Minnesota, the stuffed menorahs arrived, along with a vast quantity of gold foil-covered chocolate coins, which I'd forgotten about. The menorahs will have to wait till next year, but the chocolate coins I intend to do away with myself.