On one night, however, the celebration turns more grand when 30 to 40 relatives fill the Fish home in Avon for dinner, singing and games. Jessica Fish’s 11 cousins, who each have their own children, her grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles gather to commemorate the Hanukkah miracle. They light the menorah to remember how a small amount of oil miraculously lasted for eight days in the temple.
The gathering resembles the Fishes’ dinner and fun when they are just a foursome “but on a bigger scale,” Jessica Fish says. “We hand out song sheets and light the menorah. For each of the children, there is a pile of gifts with their names on it. When my grandfather says, ‘One, two, three,’ the kids run to their pile and rip open the presents.”
“We’ve been doing this for years,” she says. “It’s a nice tradition.”
What has changed over the years, as the family has grown and as the matriarchs have aged, is the meal. “It used to be that my grandmother would make a big dinner,” Fish says. “We would have an adult table and a kids’ table. As she got older, dinner became a catered [event].”
A pot luck approach remains a solution to feeding a large group and was a practice that Fish’s family often followed for other holiday celebrations. “There are other holidays when we have extended family of 80 to 90 people, and we would have a pot luck meal,” she says. One person volunteered to be the organizer who would assign a course or a category of food to each family.
Sharing the cooking duties a la pot luck eases the work load for one person when entertaining a crowd of family and friends or the gathering falls on a weeknight. Whether the group is large or small, tradition dictates that the celebratory meal feature certain dishes.
Fried foods such as potato pancakes or Sufganiyot, an Israeli-style jelly doughnut, recall the miracle of the oil. Fish says that her family also gravitated toward “real Jewish comfort food” such as matzo ball soup and roasted chicken. Her mother and grandmother also make their Israeli family recipe for Yaprakes or grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat. “For the amount of time it takes to make them, they are scooped up so quickly,” Fish says. “I have a running joke with my brother because he and I love them so much. My mother has to divide up the leftovers so that they are perfectly even between my brother and me.”
As a holiday, Hanukkah is child-oriented with songs, game-playing and, of course, the expectation of gifts adding up to a festive occasion. Families such as the Fish family have created their own holiday traditions over the years, but the Internet acts as a great source of ideas for developing those traditions.
Some sites show how the dining table can be set and decorated in the blue and white colors – the shades of the Israeli flag. A more modern Hanukkah color scheme often replaces white with silver or gold. While the menorah is an integral part of the holiday ritual, other kinds of candles and candle-holders can add to the decorations and help to create a mood.
Children can be occupied for hours with a collection of dreidels, the spinning tops with Hebrew letters on each of the four sides. Kids spin the top and bet on which letter will turn up. They play for a delicious gift: gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins known as gelt.
Web sites such as www.enchantedlearning.com and ehow.com give instructions for making paper dreidels, while www.cupcakecentral.com and www.tlc.discovery.com offer child-friendly directions for an edible menorah (search on the words “edible menorah”). At www.marthastewart.com, the approach to crafts, food and games is decidedly upscale. For those who need a guide to the history and rituals of Hanukkah in addition to crafts and food, www.chabad.org even includes a section on FAQs.
Even if the holiday preparations don’t include an arts and crafts session, encourage children to at least help out in the kitchen. “I try to get my children involved,” Fish says, adding that they are still too young to take on major culinary chores. “They both love to be in the kitchen, and they help me make the matzo balls or add spices to soup.”
Hanukkah “is a nice time of year to show our children how important it is to be together,” she says. “We make sure we are together every night. It’s a beautiful tradition for us.”
The Hanukkah table wouldn’t be complete without potato pancakes. This recipe, from The Courant’s files, uses grated potato for texture and a bit of matzo meal to bind together the ingredients.
7 or 8 medium potatoes
1 large onion, peeled
3 tablespoons matzo meal