Families learn to create meaningful Chanukah memories

When our children were small, they would look forward to Chanukah each year. They loved the candles and latkes and, of course, the presents.

Soon, they were rushing through the candles to get to the presents and had no patience to sing songs or even play dreidel. The present orgy got quickly out of control with three children and eight days, not to mention grandparents, gift exchanges and the like.

What inevitably happened was that the evening, which started out with great excitement and anticipation, often ended badly. A toy would break or someone got something that someone else had wanted and the tears would begin to flow. It simply wasn't fun or in the spirit of the holiday. We decided we'd had enough.

Some years ago, we sat down with the children before the holiday. Together we made a list of how we wanted to celebrate each night. We didn't completely get rid of presents, but we did feel better about what we are teaching our children. Over the past decade we have had wonderful Chanukah celebrations and have created traditions that are now part of our family rituals — and no more tears. Here are eight of our favorite Chanukah happenings:

*Friends and fire night.

We build a big fire in the fireplace and invite friends whose children are our children's friends. Then we plan a fun activity. One year, our children each got to make and eat a pie of their own design. Another year, we covered the tables and had art night, where the children painted murals and made figures out of clay. Now that they are teens, our kids get together and make a dinner for their friends.

*Music night.

We invite friends who play instruments and who like to sing. Then we spend the evening singing, playing dreidel games and eating latkes.

*Tzedakah night.

On this night we do something for others. When the children were small, we bought gifts to donate to a Christmas toy campaign or sent money to the Jerusalem Post Toy Fund. Now that they are older, we can serve dinner at a shelter or work at a food bank. These outings might be combined with another favorite, movie night, when the whole family goes to the movies together.

*Big present night.

We give each child one big present.

*Book night.

When they were younger, we would buy each child a storybook and spend the evening reading the books out loud and telling Chanukah stories. Now, we buy the family a video we've all been wanting or a piece of software.

*Tickets night.

We pick a cultural event such as a concert or a play that we would like to attend as a family; then we purchase the tickets.

*Grandparents night.

We give the children the presents that came in the mail and get on the phone and talk to their grandparents and their cousins scattered around the country. If your family is closer, you could have a family party.

*Homemade presents night.

This is definitely our favorite night and has been on our list consistently from the beginning. We draw lots to decide who will make a present for which family member. These presents are always treasured — no matter how simple or elaborate. My husband still keeps bills in a box that our son decorated when he was 5.

The year our daughter became a bat mitzvah, her older brother created a plaque with her invitation and pictures on it. My son designed a menorah in the shape of a cat for his cousin who loves cats. My husband made comedy-tragedy masks out of papier- mâché for our son, the thespian.

Lately, we have enjoyed creating elaborate Chanukah decorations for our home, both inside and out, in order to get back to a basic Chanukah mitzvah, which is to publicize the miracle. The point is that long after store-bought presents have been broken or forgotten, our memories of family time at Chanukah remain.