In My Own Words: Is it too early? Preparing for Hanukkah

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

It’s become a holiday tradition. Once the countdown to Christmas starts, I send a Christian friend notices from e-mails and websites about how many days there are to the holiday. I’ve also been known to let her know when displays start going up in stores, especially if it’s August or September. Her answer to these notifications (especially the ones that say, “Only 120 days until Christmas!”) is “NOOOOOOO!!!” She did appreciate a photo I sent to her recently of an inflatable turkey sitting on an inflatable Santa Claus. The turkey held a sign that said, “It’s not your turn yet, Fat Boy.”

I sympathize with her, which may seem strange since I started my Hanukkah preparations during the second week in November this year. (The holiday doesn’t start until the evening of December 18, so I was more than a month early.) To place this into perspective, you have to understand what happened in 2020 and what I did differently last year.

My family has never been sentimental about the holidays. I can’t remember if it was during or after high school that my parents stopped giving us presents. My father never mentioned what his family did (they were non-observant), but my mom would note that she used to get a quarter and an orange, so presents were not a big deal to her. My favorite part of the holiday has always been lighting the candles so I didn’t mind the lack of presents; they didn’t really matter.

Move ahead to 2020 and the pandemic. The Federation held a Hanukkah event in the Jewish Community Center parking lot. I was so busy taking pictures for the paper that by the time I went to get a doughnut, there were none left. While driving home, I felt very unhappy and wondered why since I’m not that big a fan of doughnuts. I knew that meant the doughnut was standing in for the real problem. I quickly realized that the lack of Hanukkah gatherings that year made me feel like I was missing an important part of the holiday.

So, last year, I decided I was going to do what was necessary to make the holiday fun. That meant two things: 1) for the first time in my life I was going to have eight nights of presents even if they all came from me (at least I knew I’d like them all) and 2) on the last night of Hanukkah, I was going to clean off my kitchen table, put down sheets of aluminum foil and light all my menorahs.

Last year was so much fun, I decided I was going to do the same thing again this year. That meant starting to put things aside (for example, the daily calendars I buy every year) so I’ll have enough gifts for eight days. I do exchange gifts with one couple and we’ve already sent those to each other, so I also put those books aside. At the grocery store last week, I bought something fun (AKA a toy) so there will be a silly aspect to at least one of the gifts. And I found another holiday menorah so I now have seven I can light on the eighth night. (Two of my menorahs are the same because I bought one for me and one for my parents when I was in Israel during rabbinical school, but that’s OK.) 

I have resisted some temptations, including the six-foot tall inflatable dinosaur holding a giant dreidel. (Yes, I am a sucker for inflatables.) But it was too expensive, as was the adorable menorah I saw on a museum website. (That’s $170 for the inflatable and $240 for the menorah.) 

Last year, I did manage to find time to spend with friends during Hanukkah and my synagogue had a modified celebration. Even if COVID gets to the point where we can’t do either of those this year, I plan to make sure I still enjoy the holiday. Over the years, I’ve realized that my attitude is an important part of any celebration. Plus, I’ve learned to have realistic expectations about what will happen. So, I am mentally preparing for the holiday, being fully aware that programs and gatherings might be cancelled, but knowing that I am lucky and blessed enough to be able to create my own fun.