Lighting the Menorah

No Place Like Home for the Holidays

Now, almost a month into 2015 and with the holiday craziness quieted down, it finally feels like I am settling into life in New York with a job, routine and time to finally transition into a full-fledged life here. A lot of my posts have focused on my travels in the past few months, but I kept putting off all of the experiences at home, namely the ones that I had missed so much last year when I was away—the holidays! So here’s a little retrospective of the past few months and returning to the American holidays that I never had thought I would miss so much as when I didn’t have them around.

Strolling through the Apple Orchards
Strolling through the Apple Orchards
Halloween Decorations in the Suburbs
Halloween Decorations in the Suburbs

Halloween

As soon as stores got over the hype of back-to-school supplies (always a favorite time of year of mine 🙂 ) the Halloween candy slowly trickled into the shop windows. For some reason this made me very happy—just to see those oranges and blacks and purples and greens, the witches and monsters, and all of the bags of individually wrapped small pieces of candy! If you think about it, without Halloween, why else would you really need individually wrapped candies? Normal people should be able to restrain themselves from eating a whole bag or bar of candy/chocolate, right?

Jack-o-Lanterns
Jack-o-Lanterns

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Halloween, mostly because of my fear of all things “scary,” but last year I definitely missed the excitement of planning a group costume and having an excuse to eat Reese’s. So this year, I made the effort to do the stereotypical Halloween activities I most missed last year. To kick-off the fall season, my roommates and sister and I drove out to the middle of New Jersey to do some apple and pumpkin picking on a beautifully sunny and crisp autumn day. We then hosted a Halloween party, spookily decorated our apartment, and carved our pumpkins too! Finally, even though adults can’t legitimately trick-or-treat, I made sure to eat a bunch of candy and enjoy the city’s playfulness with kids of all ages running around in their crazy costumes.

It was the first instance of feeling reassured that everything I had told my students abroad Halloween in the US was in fact true! From the decorations to the costumes it almost felt like I needed to buy back in to the hype in order to compensate for my absence and to prove to myself and to my new friends across the ocean that the traditions of Halloween, as consumerist as they have come to be, are a big excitement of American life before the real “holiday season” begins…

Friendsgiving
Friendsgiving
Thanksgiving Plate
Thanksgiving Plate

Thanksgiving

For the first time in 5 years, this was the first time that I wasn’t “coming home” for Thanksgiving. Amongst starting my new job and having visitors come into town, Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, kind of snuck up on me. Instead of the big moment of coming home from college for the first time of the semester and being overwhelmed by seeing a large amount of family all at once, this year’s Thanksgiving had a different tone now that I’m home all the time and have the lucky ability to see my family a lot too. I even had a pre-Thanksgiving with my roommates and some friends– cooking a full turkey with all of the fixings!

The Full Thanksgiving Spread
The Full Thanksgiving Spread

Thanksgiving was especially interesting this year because my two friends from Germany who I met last year while celebrating New Years came to visit! They got the full Thanksgiving experience of joining in our family celebration before getting to the actual focus of their weekend, seeing NYC. They were awesome sports of answering my family’s a million questions about them and our slightly unconventionally casual form of Thanksgiving.

Most of all, it was strange to see this important family-bonding holiday through the eyes of foreigners both of to our family and to the concept of Thanksgiving in general. To be honest, Thanksgiving isn’t really a holiday that has a lot of specific ritual to live up to the hype. I think the outsider fascination with Thanksgiving is more that it’s this holiday that Americans take very seriously and love, but no other place has any reason to celebrate (unfortunately the Indians and Pilgrims story is pretty America-specific). So what’s so exciting about Thanksgiving? I think it is that concept of all of family coming together, the amazing amounts of food, and the fact that there is no pressure of gift giving, just eating and seeing people you love.

Grandma's Latkes
Grandma’s Latkes

Chanukah

Similar to Halloween, Chanukah was exciting this year because when I talked about it last year it seemed as foreign to my target audience as some African tribal ceremony. Instead this year, my Chanukah celebrations both tied to my past, but also to my future as a self-described “holiday/cultural Jew.” I was reminded first that it was in fact Chanukah because the Empire State Building was changed to Blue and White colors for the 8 days. Then for my family’s mini-celebration I ventured out to Park Slope, Brooklyn and saw the huge menorah of Grand Army Plaza being ceremoniously and symbolically “lit” amidst cheers from a crowd and kitschy electronic “Jewish” music. We had latkes and jelly doughnuts and lit the candles.

The Big Menorah
The Big Menorah

However, when I thought my Chanukah celebrations were crossed off the list, one of my best friends from high school organized a little Chanukah dinner at her apartment for the motley assortment of Jewish/part-Jewish friends in our group. As we ate my friends’ home cooked meal and latkes, sipped wine and lit the same candles with the same prayers, Chanukah crossed over from that tradition I do with my family to one that is now proactively included in my young adult life, as well. I was proud of us, taking the initiative to stick with tradition and bond over something bigger than just our jobs or barhopping. As we become older and start our own independent lives, these traditions too are now continuing with us into our generation.

Our Christmas Tree!
Our Christmas Tree!
Crazy Christmas Decorations at Rolf's German Restaurant
Crazy Christmas Decorations at Rolf’s German Restaurant

Christmas

NYC is magical during Christmastime, but it took intention to really see it outside of my daily routine that doesn’t quite include 5th Avenue. The first time I heard Christmas music on the radio I got excited, after last year I always had to consciously turn on those familiar English tunes for myself. Yet Christmas back home lived up to all my expectations of my favorite traditions:

  • Seeing the Tree and the department store windows.
  • The Nutcracker Ballet
  • Watching It’s a Wonderful Life, The Holiday, Love Actually, Elf and new Czech additions, Popelka and Pelišky
  • Singing “Silent Night” by candlelight
  • Seeing a big movie on Christmas Day
  • Eating peppermint bark
  • Finding fitting Christmas gifts
All the Santas on 3rd Avenue
All the Santas on 3rd Avenue
Santacon Party
Santacon Party

One new tradition I tried this year for Christmas was NYC’s annual Santacon. Pretty much it’s an event where everyone dresses up as Santa and uses it as an excuse to drink all day long. While it was a little overwhelming and felt like I was back in college, it was a fun atmosphere and definitely something unique to the Western, Santa-believing world.

However, there was a part of me that definitely missed Czech Christmas. The excitement about Christmas there is so rooted into tradition and so sincere. Even adults have a child-like love of Christmastime and adhere to the rituals of baking cookies, going to markets, eating specific foods etc. with a strict enthusiasm. While non-Christian Christmas in the US is seen as sort of bandwagon consumerism, there that’s just the way it is and everyone is part of the festivity. I was glad to incorporate a nature-y Christmas Day walk after doing that last year in Znojmo’s natural park though. Overall, in the fast paced city of New York Christmas came and went just in time for the next huge celebration of the end of the year!

Happy New Year!
The Ball Drop: Happy New Year!

New Years

New Years may have been one of the hardest holidays to miss last year because of my annual celebration with my friends from high school—this year was our 9th year celebrating together! It’s a nice tradition and I’m really grateful that we choose a house party over some over-priced and over-hyped night in NYC. Most of all, the New Year felt right, counting down to the ball dropping in Times Square. I never realized until last year that not everywhere in the world rings in the New Year with the ball in Times Square. Yet this year was perfect with the whole party gathered around the TV, counting down with the thousands on screen and cheering at the official midnight moment.

Now it’s the end of January and unfortunately, Martin Luther King Jr. Day doesn’t have much commercial value, so there are already Valentine’s decorations all in the shop windows. Luckily, this is one holiday I don’t mind not celebrating after last year’s ignorance of Valentine’s Day. With the “holiday season” to a close, here’s to surviving the winter and fun things to making daily life fun in the upcoming months!

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