Merle Coyle shares her family’s experience having Hanukkah theme nights
“Is that all we’re getting for Hanukkah tonight?” I couldn’t believe those words were coming out of my children’s mouths, but I realized that I had inadvertently created this situation. In our attempt to make each night of Hanukkah special and fun, we had tried to have a “special present” to open each night – but there was no way that we could afford or wanted to provide twenty four gifts (three children times eight days) that were worth a full day’s anticipation during every day of Hanukkah. The ten seconds it took to open the gift inevitably led to a let-down, and we felt caught in an increasingly disappointing and frustrating holiday cycle.
Our Hanukkahs changed dramatically when my cousin shared an article she had seen, written by a mother who had faced the same discouraging dilemma. The author had created “Hanukkah Theme Nights” for her family, and December stress turned into her favorite time of the year. We had the same wonderful experience when we adopted her ideas, and ever since then I have tried to share them with everyone I know.
The simple but (I think) brilliant concept is to designate a separate theme for at least some, if not all, of the nights of Hanukkah. Obviously, the themes should be age appropriate and relevant for the interests and abilities of your family – and having a “Hanukkah Theme Planning Night” a few weeks before the holiday starts can be a way to create anticipation and ownership, and a clever way to sneak in another family night!
The goal of theme nights is to create family time together, so it is critical to plan your theme nights for evenings when everyone is available (home from work, free from other activities, early dinners and homework finished, etc.). Obviously, this gets harder as your children get older and the demands of school, sports and busy schedules intrude, but even a few special nights during Hanukkah will create memories that will last a lifetime.
Some examples of our early theme nights included: game night, craft night, movie night, holiday celebration at the zoo night, grandparents’ night, and of course big present night.
Here’s how it worked: on game night each child unwrapped a new, age-appropriate game and (here’s the key) we spent the rest of the evening playing the games together. The same routine worked great for craft night – new craft kits for each child and we worked on the crafts together. Planning and creating some special and fun snacks/treats during these activities expands the traditions and involvement.
Some of the other themes involved family outings rather than gifts that we unwrapped and enjoyed at home. Movie night was usually a casual dinner at a favorite restaurant then attending a family-oriented movie together. We had always loved taking our children to the “Festival of Lights” celebration at our zoo, but had never thought of turning it into a Hanukkah gift. And the holiday had always included an evening with grandparents and cousins to exchange gifts and eat latkes – but now it took on the added special designation of one of our theme nights.
Big present night is pretty self-explanatory, and gave us a chance to give our children the special gifts on their wish lists.
As our children got a little older, we felt it was important to include the lesson of helping other families who weren’t as fortunate as we were. So another planning night was spent deciding on a cause to support, and determining the best way to contribute our time, energy, money, and toys or clothes that we no longer needed. And, of course, we found a way to implement these plans together as a family.
Some other ideas for theme nights might be music night or book night – and they could include gifts you exchange and share, outings to bookstores to pick out new books together, attending musical concerts or events, or an evening of playing instruments together with family and friends. We also try to attend Hanukkah services during the holiday, and count this evening with our Beth Adam friends as another special theme night. One last idea is to have everyone get in their pajamas, pile into the car with blankets, popcorn and hot chocolate, and take an extended ride around town to look at holiday lights. (One of the helpful benefits of theme nights is that many of them cost next to nothing – but the memories are priceless!)
Theme nights have now been a special part of our holiday for many years. But recently, with Hanukkah usually falling early enough in December that our children were not yet on holiday break and their high school workload increasing every year, our theme nights have sadly decreased significantly. However, this year I received the best Hanukkah gift my family ever gave me – when we discovered that Hanukkah falls almost completely during their school break, my grown-up, sophisticated teen-agers eagerly asked if we can revive our Hanukkah theme nights traditions! I can’t wait to see what themes we come up with this year!