Growing up in a military family that moved every few years, Christmas was the one time of year that made every different home feel like our home. The tree was our “constant,” where we displayed handcrafted knick-knacks that told the story of our past and our travels.
Our mom was the ultimate DIYer, so around the holidays our home was always filled with homemade wreaths, stockings, home-cooked goodies and macramé plant hangers (hey, it was the ‘70s!). Each year, my sister Stephanie and I would be tasked with making new ornaments for the Christmas tree. Over the years, we sewed, beaded and bedazzled on planes and in cars during the summers as we trekked around Canada and the U.S. For anyone to see us with our notions and needle-pricked fingers, it really did look like Christmas was in July.
When I met my husband Ian, we decided that we would raise a family under one religion, so I converted to his — Judaism — and together we agreed to start our own traditions. That very first holiday season as a couple was an adjustment as there was no tree to decorate or stockings to fill. But I embraced this new holiday, often kicking off the first of the eight nights of Hanukkah with a large Shabinsky family gathering full of festive décor and food.
When we started our family and our four children were younger, each night of Hanukkah we would gather around our menorah and each child would take a turn lighting it. I loved to see their eyes dazzle in the candlelight and wonder about the miracle of the magic oil. We would then give them each a tiny gift. Now that my kids are older and time together is often a challenge, we are grateful for any of the eight nights together and we’ve stopped giving presents because we all know that just being with each other is the best gift of all. And now the meaning of both holidays seems to blend as we cherish our time as a family.
The one question I am often asked is, “Do you miss Christmas?” Sure, I miss the decorations and the magic surrounding the season. When I stand in my front hall and look at my staircase I think about how nice a green garland would look trailing down the banister. But over the years we have created our own magic surrounding this Festival of Lights, our own traditions and favourite holiday foods that one day we hope our children will share with their families.
My sister is now the custodian of the tickle trunk of ornaments and each year we all get together to decorate a family tree at her house as my sister and I recount stories of our “sisterhood of the travelling Christmas tree ornaments.” Over the years, my kids have added their own homemade decorations, so now the colourful branches of our family tree tell the story of three families embracing and respecting two cultures and our blended traditions.
While I don’t celebrate Christmas in my own home anymore, in the true spirit of my childhood I still look forward to opening my Holly Hobbie stocking lovingly filled by my mom and sister. Selfishly, this is one family tradition from my past that I don’t mind keeping.
Adam & Maxine’s Famous Latkes Recipe: I’ve struggled over the years to try and make the perfect potato latke, but by far, this is the best. I give full credit to Adam Rapoport, editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit, and thank him for sharing one of his family favourites.
(makes 24 servings)
3 pounds large russet potatoes (4-6)
1 medium Vidalia, or 2 yellow/brown onions
2 large eggs 1/4 cup fine plain dried breadcrumbs
3 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons (or more) schmaltz (chicken fat optional)
2-4 tablespoons (or more) vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 325F. Peel potatoes. Using the large holes of a box grater or the grater disk on a food processor, grate potatoes and onions. Transfer to a large kitchen towel. Gather ends of towel; twist over sink and squeeze firmly to wring out as much liquid as possible. Open towel; toss mixture to loosen. Gather towel; wring out once more. Whisk eggs, breadcrumbs, salt, baking powder, and pepper in a medium bowl to blend. Add potato mixture. Using your fingers, mix until well coated. (Latke mixture should be wet and thick, not soupy.)
Line a large rimmed baking sheet with several layers of paper towels. Set a wire rack inside another large rimmed baking sheet; set aside. Heat 2 tablespoons schmaltz, if using, and 2 tablespoons oil (or 4 tablespoons oil if not using schmaltz; fat should measure about 1/8 inches) in a 12 inches non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Drop a small amount of latke mixture into pan. If the fat sizzles around the edges, it’s ready. (Do not let fat smoke.)
Working in batches and adding more schmaltz and oil to skillet as needed to maintain 1/8 inches fat, drop large spoonfuls of mixture into pan, pressing gently with the back of a spoon or spatula to flatten slightly. (If mixture becomes watery between batches, mix to incorporate; do not drain.)
Cook latkes, occasionally rotating pan for even browning, until golden brown and cooked through, 2 1/2-3 minutes per side. (If small pieces of potato floating in the oil start to burn, carefully strain out.)
Transfer latkes to paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain, then transfer to prepared wire rack. Place sheet with latkes in oven to keep warm and crisp while cooking remaining latkes. Serve warm latkes with applesauce and sour cream.