What Celebrating Hanukkah For The First Time Has Taught Me

This year, my kids and I are celebrating four different holidays: St. Lucia, in honor of my children's Scandinavian side; Kwanza, for their black side; Christmas, because that's the holiday I grew up celebrating; and Hanukkah, because my partner, their step-dad, is Jewish. I think out of all the holidays, this one might be the one I'm the most excited to learn about. As a teenager growing up in the San Fernando Valley in California, all of my closest friends were Jewish. I attended festival celebrations with them, and in a childish naivety, I always envied that on Christmas they got to go to the movies and eat out. I thought the most beautiful thing about the Jewish culture was the way they integrated their culture into their lives. I grew up without much religious culture, so I was automatically drawn to how so many traditions, prayers, and rituals had been passed down for years.

When I had kids, I knew I wanted them to have a broader understanding of the cultures and backgrounds they come from. Their grandfather is Swedish and Danish, and they've spent a lot of time with their Danish great grandmother. Last November, my daughter was given a St. Lucia dress from her grandmother, since she's the oldest granddaughter, and it's tradition for the eldest daughter in the family to wear a white dress and serve breakfast to the family on the 13 of December. So we learned how to make Lussekatter, the main bread served at breakfast. Riley was so excited, and watching her feel connected to her roots was something that I'd always wanted for my kids.

This year, we'll celebrate Hanukkah with my partner and his family, and my kids are beyond excited. Last night we prepared for the occasion by having a Hanukkah party. The kids have been helping decorate the house in a lot of blue and white, and my partner mom has helped explain to them why there are eight nights of celebration and how gift-giving works. Riley, my oldest daughter, learned how to make challah. She helped roll out the parts of dough for braiding, captivated when the braiding actually began. I told her we would get to make challah when we do Shabbat back at home. She was the most excited when I told her this.

Watching my kids get so excited, not only about celebrating Hanukkah, but learning about the Jewish culture while preparing for the party, gets me excited. My daughter keeps telling me how lucky she feels to be able to celebrate the holidays in so many different ways. I've always been really indifferent to holidays, but this year, I'm feeling a lot more open. I'm learning, alongside my children, that at the foundation of each celebration is gratitude and appreciation for not only the culture that it derives from, but also the recognition of things its overcome. The ability to gather with those dearest to you. The ones you love the most. It's rooted in love for who you are, and for those who are your family.

Christmas is about goodwill, about spending time with family. That's no different than Hanukkah, St. Lucia, and Kwanza. The only thing that differs are the settings, the traditions, perhaps the food. But the heart of the celebration, that is steady and it is the same. I forgot that I had control over how I celebrate with my family, how I appreciate and love them. Learning about Hanukkah, and partaking in the preparations for the eight nights, has made me grateful. Grateful for the people I call my family, and for those that cling tight to their own.

For the last two nights, my partner has been reading Hanukkah books to my kids. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins was an instant favorite. (Except that now I think my son really does think that goblins are part of Hanukkah.) Noah was so proud to bring out the books he read as a child, and to share them with my kids. It connected the three of them together in a whole new way. It was so beautiful to experience, and it was amazing to hear my children talk about the Festival of Lights as if they'd always celebrated together with Noah.

Today we finished the challah and the kids put candles in the menorahs around the house. I used to complain about the process of getting ready to have parties for a holiday, and the preparation in general for any event. Not this year though; this year I'm taking it all in. I'm loving being surrounded by new family, which honestly, just feels like the family I've always had. My kids are glowing, feeling loved by everyone and looking forward to what's to come.

When I think the coming seven nights, it hits me: this is why everyone loves this time of the year. The rituals, the love, the songs, the traditions. I am so grateful for a partner that has welcomed me into a culture that prides itself on family and on community. I'm grateful that in being welcomed into something this beautiful, I've learned so much more than I thought possible. By watching, I think I've learned more than the kids. And that's been the most gratifying gift of all.

Images Courtesy of Margaret Jacobsen (5)