When I was a kid, Chanukah was all about getting presents. It was also about latkes, applesauce, sour cream (served alongside Mom’s salmon patties) and playing dreidel. But for me, presents were the big draw. My sister and I grew up in a family where we had something to open every night.
These were not always big gifts. Think “Let’s Make a Deal” writ small. There was one “Big Deal” present, the rest were considerably more humble. Socks. Underwear. In college, post-Thanksgiving, we toted pre-wrapped gifts back to our dorm rooms, where after lighting our menorahs, we’d open gift-wrapped toothpaste, soap, boxes of tea bags or a single sock. We’d have to wait until after we opened the second sock before we could wear them.
I have carried the “something to open every night” tradition on with my own children.
But I have eschewed some of my family’s other traditions, and not just the “single sock” one.
These days, when it comes to holiday presents, I get as much pleasure (and maybe even more) from giving than from getting.
This could have something to do with coming from a line of women – my mother and her three older sisters, to be specific – who treated shopping for gifts and everything else as a competitive sport. Their criteria for winning included “Who got the most for the least?” “Who cares if it fits as long as it was cheap!” and “What a deal! I’ll buy it now and figure out who to give it to later.”
There is no question that my own gift-giving ethos has been partly informed by this practice. Being the bewildered recipient of some of those “deals” had an impact. So, like them, I don’t confine my holiday shopping to the holiday season. If I see something in June that I think a specific recipient would love, I bring it home and stow it until November/December.
I hesitate to use the word “curated,” which has come, of late, to be associated with a level of pretentiousness several rungs above my strategic process for choosing who gets what during the holidays. But making deliberate attempts to connect the people in my life with gifts that will please and/or surprise and/or delight them just plain makes me happy.
So I’ve been able to balance the family tradition of shopping for gifts as a competitive sport, just with a different set of rules. The competition is finding the right thing for the right person in an attempt to increase the amount of joy in the world. If I do it right, everybody wins.
So, with that in mind, here are some of the things I’ve picked for the people in my life in the upcoming seasons, with a little bonus information about why these gifts are the right ones for these recipients.
Fishs Eddy “Heroes of the Torah” glasses – $9/apiece
Ruth Bader Ginsburg mug – $16.95
If you go to New York and love fun, Fishs Eddy is a must-stop on your shopping itinerary. This store sells all kinds of interesting dishes, glassware and other more and less useful stuff. In the spirit of mom and the aunts, there is nothing even remotely practical about shlepping glassware across state lines. But I’ve got a daughter and son-in-law with a kosher kitchen. His parents also keep kosher. They will get a big kick out of drinking their morning juice from “Heroes of the Torah” glasses. (They can even look up one of the rabbis on Wikipedia!)
My favorite lawyer power couple is going to be the recipient of a pair of his-and-hers Ruth Bader Ginsberg coffee mugs. They’re especially appropriate because my pal Rob has argued at least one case before the U.S. Supreme Court and this would give him a unique opportunity to get in some home practice if he ever does it again.
Chicken Purse – $39.99
My friend Kathi has been a part of my life since I started reading her humor column in a local publication in the 1980s. In 1993, we met and have been great friends ever since. She’s written quite a bit about chickens and has a house full of everything she could ever want, which is why I yelped for joy when I came across this handbag.
I know she will be surprised because – let’s be honest – who expects to be gifted with a genuine rubber chicken handbag? (No one, that’s who!) Among the many fabulous things about this purse are:
- It’s waterproof.
- I’m almost positive she doesn’t already have one.
- This purchase will benefit the Tenement Museum, which is a must-see for anyone visiting New York, especially someone with Eastern European Jewish roots. Kathi is retired and she and her husband travel, so they may actually make the trip.
Someone just please remind me to make sure I tell her to remove the lining before filling it with chicken soup.
The Latke that Couldn’t Stop Screaming – $12
My sister Debby and I have a long tradition of giving presents designed to make the other one laugh. One year, she gave me a pen shaped like a pea pod, which was funny not just because pea pod pens are funny, but because she loathes peas and I don’t, so she’d slip hers across the table to me when we were kids and I’d eat them on her behalf. Two years ago I found a little canister at a shop in Mequon that said “Scientists Puzzle over Contents of Jar on Kitchen Counter” with a sub-heading that reads “Local Mom Continues to Be Only Person in House who Cleans Kitchen.” My brother-in-law is a scientist and my sister is the only person who cleans the kitchen.
Topping that was going to be a challenge, but Lemony Snicket’s “The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming” (illustrated by Lisa Brown) is a strong contender. I knew Debby and her family had to have a copy, and not just because she writes children’s books. Subtitled “A Christmas Story,” Snicket has wrapped a whole lot into this very funny picture book about a latke on the lam. It’s also great for a family with relatives who celebrate that other big December holiday. Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) tells the story of Chanukah and why it’s different from Christmas in a matter-of-fact way that doesn’t diminish the significance of either holiday. And it’s extremely funny, even though (spoiler alert) the latke gets eaten in the end.
Yiddish Sayings Socks – $12.95
My mother isn’t in the best shape, but she still has some moments of appreciating things. On that list, aside from visits from her children, grandchildren and great-grandson, are warm hands and feet. As previously noted, socks have a long and honored history as family gifts. Our quest for sock perfection is an ongoing endeavor. The pair I’ve found this year for mom ticks multiple boxes on the success chart. First off, they’re colorful, so they’ll pretty much match everything she wears. Secondly, they’ve got Yiddish right in the title, which was mo
m’s other first language. And best of all, they’ve got some downright kvetchy sayings on them. Being old and not in the best of health, even if you’ve got a great attitude, is bound to leave a person feeling more kvetchy on some days than they’d like to be, and Mom is no exception. So for days when she’s not feeling great, she can announce it to the world via her footwear.
Dreidel Piñata – $18.99
While Chanukah commemorates the aftermath of a battle, no one ever really does much in the way of symbolic re-enactments. This year, though, I’m thinking about changing all that. I already have a spare broomstick and a scarf or two laying around. So for this year’s Chanukah party at my house, I’m seriously considering ordering up this dreidel piñata. It’ll be fun to constructively work off a little free-floating aggression by taking a whack at some metaphorical ancient Greeks…or contemporary objectionables. The piñata holds up to two pounds. I thought about stuffing it with latkes, applesauce and sour cream, but cleanup would be a disaster. So I’m planning to keep the latkes on the table and fill the piñata with chocolate gelt, plastic dreidels and candy.
Amy Waldman is a librarian with the Milwaukee Public Library and is a frequent Chronicle contributor.