The objects of our traditions

 

My family's menorah
My family's menorah

The holiday season makes me think of boxes. Full of history, memories, and objects, boxes make great metaphors.

In this case, the box in question was a slightly ripped cardboard box that, when opened, would reveal sparkly Chanukah decorations, a bag of dreidels (four-sided spinning tops), some Chanukah napkins and paper plates, and, most importantly, the family menorah. Brass, heavy, and covered in lions, when my mom lifted the menorah out of that cardboard box, I felt instantly comforted. I knew that I'd be saying prayers, lighting candles, and doing something really special with my mom for eight nights in a row. The latkes and the dreidel games were a huge bonus, but it was the lighting of candles, standing next to my mom, in a dimly lit living room, watching the warm glow of the candles reflect off the tinfoil. (Did I mention that my mother insisted on placing this beautiful menorah on top of tinfoil? Always the practical thinker, she did not want to remember the holiday season all year by staring at the wax drippings on top of the piano.) All this made me feel connected to my mom, my family, and generations before me.

Holiday objects can symbolize lots of things: religious tradition, family memories (of all sorts), seasonal change, and artistic expression, to name a few. Objects in our collection can tell all of these stories and then some.

There are several examples of menorahs in both the American History collections and the Smithsonian collections. However, I can't help but notice that none of these are covered in wax, which makes me wonder if the mom in the family also put these menorahs in the freezer after Chanukah was over. (Helpful hint: freezing your menorah makes the wax way easier to take off. But just remember to take it out. Leaving it in the freezer until late January, as my family once did, was a nice extension to the holiday season, but totally unnecessary.)

 

This menorah was made in 1986 by German immigrant Manfred Anson. And yes, those are small Statue of Liberty figures with words and dates representing events in Jewish history under them. You can explore this object in more detail with our Timelines Tell Stories guide for parents and children.
This menorah was made in 1986 by German immigrant Manfred Anson. And yes, those are small Statue of Liberty figures with words and dates representing events in Jewish history under them. You can explore this object in more detail with our Timelines Tell Stories guide for parents and children.

 

In 1867, Susan Rogers of Brooklyn, New York, made this album quilt with 25 blocks, each with a different design. The center of the quilt is a decorated tree, under which Susan embroidered “Merry Christmas.”
In 1867, Susan Rogers of Brooklyn, New York, made this album quilt with 25 blocks, each with a different design. The center of the quilt is a decorated tree, under which Susan embroidered "Merry Christmas."

This Chanukah musical yo-yo reminds me a lot of the electric, light up dreidel that graced my home in the early 1990s. That thing was incredible—it made a whistling noise and spun for a really long time, driving both my dog and my parents totally crazy.
This Chanukah musical yo-yo reminds me a lot of the electric, light-up dreidel that graced my home in the early 1990s. That thing was incredible—it made a whistling noise and spun for a really long time, driving both my dog and my parents totally crazy.

What objects are you looking forward to taking out of boxes this holiday season?

Susan Evans is the museum programs coordinator. She has also blogged about the legacies of historical figures and teaching with drama

Posted at 6:00 am EST in From the Collections

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