December 1st inevitably hit Jeanne like a 300-pound linebacker. “Stupid holidays,” she would mutter watching the litany of Christmas ads in a daze. “I hate Christmas, Chanukah and New Year's; they’re just a Hallmark ploy. I can’t deal!”
I never quite got it. After all, Mom loved the holidays. She transformed into Mrs. Claus personified come December 20th; all jolly and generous and round. Why did she insist upon this stupid monologue every year?
Then two months after my daughter was born, I broke into a cold sweat in the middle of Elf. Under the cover of theater darkness, my heart pounded out a panicky rhythm to the lyrics in my head: "How am I going to make the holidays meaningful for my baby? I just feel tired and overwhelmed; how can I make magic too?" Never mind that she was six-weeks old and couldn't lift her damn head.
This year packs a particularly anxiety-ridden punch with Chanukah arriving tonight, December 1st. Adding to the complication, my daughter has decided that Chanukah trumps her birthday, Christmas and Festivus combined. So today, I sit pondering the wisdom of what a multi-holiday friend of mine posted on Facebook: “It's hard to make sure both holidays are equally good, and make sure that good-ness isn't defined by stuff.”
I take comfort in the fact that The Jeanne usually hit her holiday stride when she fused both sets of traditions into a perfect Glee mash-up: Christmas tree decorating followed by latkes. Trimming the tree was always my favorite holiday activity. I adored unpacking the ornaments and telling the same related stories every year. (I’m big on repetitive narrative.) Equally enjoyable was when we dined on latkes and sour cream that same night. We woke with our bellies full and the house smelling of oil and pine.
One year, we even chopped down our own trees before the latke nosh. Only now that I have kids do I appreciate how ambitious this outing was. Who in their right mind willingly shreds potatoes and deep fries them on the same day she takes small children into the cold to perform manual labor? Only Ma Ingalls.
Sadly, my parents were no axe-welding pioneers, a fact that grew painfully clear as we drove through a blizzard in search of the do-it-yourself tree farm. We finally ended up in a field at dusk –trespassing on someone’s 10 acre backyard for all I know—searching for the perfect tree. This was no easy task. Despite the setting sun and horizontal snow, Mom was not satisfied with the selection. “There’s a gaping hole!” she protested. “Those are the kind of needles that shed everywhere.” Eventually, my father stopped at an enormous tree and started sawing. The thing was large enough to house a population of woodland creatures, all of whom were surely displaced as Dad hacked away at the tree. The tree listed in the direction of my brother, missing him by inches. Happy holidays!
I’m not sure how we got that tree out of the woods nor how we made it home, but I do remember fantastic latkes. When it came to Jewish food, latkes were Mom’s specialty –perhaps the potatoes spoke to her Celtic soul. Or maybe she was just really good at frying stuff in lots of oil. Either way, they were super oniony and flavorful. How she pulled it off, I’ll never know since she did not write down her method.
Luckily, Jeff’s Aunt Mimi makes an equally worthy latke –light but not shredded like shoe-string french fries. Mimi owns Chanukah in our family. Each year, we gather at her place to eat the divine latkes paired with brisket and exchange gifts. Her tiny apartment fills with warmth as my kids argue over who gets to potentially burn their face off by lighting the menorah. No wonder they love Chanukah.
And, as the month progresses, we will revisit –and invent— other holiday traditions, ones that will remain tatooed in my kids’ minds as Christmakah. Perhaps the holidays are really just another family outing where you make up your own rules for "special" in a quest for perfection.
Next year, we’re down for Festivus. I’ve got my pole and my gripes on hand.
This recipe combines Mimi’s recipe with some techniques I have found to work well.
· 4-5 cups potatoes –grated, soaked in cold water (5 potatoes)
· 2 small onions shredded
· 3 Tbsp flour
· 2-3 Tbsp salt (little less)
· 3 eggs
· Parsley to taste
· 1 cup canola oil
1. Mix ingredients together. Let sit for 30 minutes.
2. If mixture looks soupy, scoop out excess liquid.
3. Blend ½ the mixture in Cuisinart and add back to mixture.
4. Heat oil in frying pan on medium high heat until sputtering.
5. Scoop large spoonfuls of mixture into frying pan.
6. Cook until golden brown and let cool on plate lined with paper towel.