Growing up, Hanukkah was a holiday that was celebrated with my entire family. I was lucky enough to grow up within 10 minutes of all of my grandparents, and cousins were happy to pay us a visit in sunny Florida to escape the icy Northeast Winters. Latkes were fried, menorahs were lit, and gifts were exchanged. It was a time filled with love and memories.
The festivities continued with friends, who were Jewish as well, as I got older. I grew up in Boca Raton, Florida: a city that has no shortage of Jewish delis and synagogues. If I wasn't celebrating at my parent's house, the merriments continued with neighbors and friends who shared the same faith.
Our Hanukkah traditions have become a celebration of the holiday as well as a celebration of friends who become family.
Fast forward to my adult life. I married a nice Jewish man, and we welcomed our daughter five years ago, but there are two glaring differences between my youth and my daughter's. First, I am now living in South Carolina, a state smack in the middle of the Bible Belt. In December, our home is sandwiched between two homes that are lit up with Christmas lights so bright they can probably be seen from outer space. Second, I do not have family close by, which, at first, made it a little challenging to celebrate a holiday filled with memories and traditions.
My daughter is the only girl who observes Jewish traditions in her preschool class. She attends an Episcopalian-affiliated school, and she comes home singing "Jingle Bells" beginning in early November. Most of her friends have never met a Jewish family before and get confused when they realize that we don't have a Christmas tree in our home.
But our Hanukkah celebrations are still filled with laughter, tradition, and love despite our challenges. Why? Friends.
My non-Jewish friends make a point to celebrate Hanukkah with us. One friend in particular embraces Hanukkah to the point that she and her family have become a pivotal part of our Hanukkah traditions.
My friend and her daughter designated themselves the "Hanukkah elves" (I didn't have the heart to tell her that we don't have elves in Hanukkah tradition). They drop off a small wrapped gift on our porch each night for the eight nights of Hanukkah, ring the doorbell, and run. My daughter gets so excited when the Hanukkah elves come to visit, and my heart feels so full knowing who the elves really are.
My friend and I also cook a traditional Hanukkah dinner together for our families, complete with latkes and jelly doughnuts. Our families spin dreidels, light candles, and eat way too much chocolate gelt. The adults have created a special Hanukkah martini complete with blue and white sugar on the glass rim. Our Hanukkah traditions have become a celebration of the holiday as well as a celebration of friends who become family.
Hanukkah reminds me that family is not just people who are related by blood. Distance makes it challenging to observe Hanukkah with my parents and sister, but my chosen family — my friends — and I have created new traditions that our girls will remember forever.
Because my non-Jewish friends have embraced my traditions and observe the holiday with us, my daughter will grow up with memories of love and acceptance, and her non-Jewish friends will grow up with a strong knowledge of a different faith. It may not be exactly like what I did growing up, but it's just as special.