Mail a greeting card in 2020 to uplift lonely holidays

Even if you don’t usually send Christmas cards or other holiday greetings, this year might deserve to be an exception. So many people are lonely and missing far-flung families due to the pandemic; getting a hand-written note in the mail may be the most human connection in a person’s day. That is well worth 55 ¢ in postage and a few minutes of your time.

greeting cards on desk blotter with pen and stampsI send cards sometimes; other years, I don’t get around to it.

I have written Hanukkah greetings, Christmas cards, acknowledgements of the Winter Solstice, and best wishes for happy New Years. I send the message I think the recipient would most appreciate; my religion* in no way dictates the blessing I offer a friend of a different persuasion.

My family hung the same red felt banners on the entry hall wall every year of my life. They went up early in December, empty canvasses, ready to receive holiday missives as they arrived. The oldest was made by my mother’s mother and features pockets and a waving Santa at the top; Mom had to craft another when I was little to accommodate the deluge of communiques that her sociability and dedication to friendship and public service inspired. Cards were pinned or stapled to that display.

In 2019, my mother died.

Somehow, that year also saw a huge reduction in the number of Christmas cards my widowed father received. In years past, every inch of these many yards of felt was hidden by the volume of cards and letters; last year, only one banner ended up even partially covered.

Torn black felt heart pinned to garment to signify grief and k'riah

I don’t believe that people were intentionally ignoring my dad in the absence of Mom, though her enthusiasm** for Christmas did put that of other, mere mortals to shame. I received fewer cards last year, too. The dentist and the auto body shop we used only once historically sent pre-printed cards, untouched by even a secretary’s hand. A lot of that has stopped. I suppose it’s a sign of the growing reliance on electronic communication, and I don’t miss impersonal mailings from businesses too much.

Dad’s passing comment about getting so few cards, however, was like a punch in the gut to me. It was already such a hard year for him; I grieved again to see him feeling forgotten. What a dreadful time for the world to decide to save a tree and skip a mailed paper greeting!

I’m going to be sending at least a few cards this year, myself. I’m prioritizing older relatives, and those who live alone. Even if you never send cards, hate to write, or don’t celebrate any of the winter holidays, this may be a year to reach out in the spirit of warmth, light, and joy—just because.

There’s no real deadline, either, in case you’re worried about the already overburdened postal system. Send Warm Winter Wishes in January, if that feels more appropriate. After the happiest of holidays, that month can be a real let-down. After a grim, lonely season you believe should have been festive? January could be gruesome.

Our shared humanity is reason enough. Care for others is the animating gift of all societies. Winter is dark and feels too long in the good years; 2020 has not been a particularly good year for most. Pandemic winter is an enemy to us all, but a terrorizing monster to the isolated and the lonely.

Reach out, if you’ve got a few minutes, an envelope, a stamp. You’ll be making the world just that little bit better for someone else. I’m willing to bet it will brighten your day, too.

I might even argue that the very definition of faith makes the fear of someone else’s difference a rather fundamental failing of it…

** Mom liked to say that Christmas was the reason the rest of the year exists. She called herself Mother Christmas, and Dad had a song commissioned for her about that by a talented musician friend. My parents’ over-the-top outdoor decorations were so spectacular, their house was featured in a television public service announcement in the 1990’s. Mom had a unique holiday outfit for every day between Thanksgiving and Epiphany, reckoning the arrival of the Wise Men was the true end of the Christmas season.

I wouldn’t turn back the clock to more paper spam either. This is not an argument that we return to physical documents for conducting most business.

That said, I do notice, enjoy, and appreciate the personalized greetings sent by some institutions, such as my son’s school and my former personal trainer who takes the time to hand write all of his cards.

Happy Hanukkah 5779 ~ Nights 1 & 2

Looking ahead and making note of the fact that Hanukkah falls early this year, on December 3, 2018–i.e., the evening of the December 2nd when converting from our Jewish to the secular calendar–didn’t prevent it from sneaking right up on my busy family and resulting in a Night 1 scramble.

We nearly missed observing Night 1 altogether. There was a late remembrance of the date. Thankfully, we had birthday candles in a cupboard and made a very quick observance of first evening of Hanukkah. We did better with Night 2, even with it falling on a school night.

Like most modern Americans, we positively swim in stuff. This year, my plan for eight nights of Hanukkah festivity is to alternate a shared gift one evening with a night of family activity the next.

Relaxed play time together is more precious than even Lego sets!

Don’t worry, though. The material gifts planned for Hanukkah 5779 are all Lego related, so new bricks will abound. We’re adding on to Bricklyn, our family display/play space located smack dab in our living room.

Yeah, my “design scheme” for our home is decidedly eccentric eclectic.

Lego Ninjago City set 70620 Hanukkah box buildLego Ninjago City set 70620 Hanukkah book manualGift number 1 and 2 was the hefty Lego Ninjago City (set 70620). As of Day 2, which follows Night 2, remember!, the 4867 piece set is not even halfway built, but that’s okay. Why rush a pleasure?

Happy Hanukkah, dear readers! May your family bask in a warm, bright glow this holiday season.

Note: Originally posted photos were all from previous years’ celebrations. I haven’t gotten a single current picture off of my phone yet, and none of them are particularly pretty. I’ve been too busy playing with the new Legos like a sensible person. Added Lego toy photos in update.

Hanukkah family fun, night 8: Find the fun & SNAP, the job’s a game

Click here if you missed Night 7.

Mary Poppins* fans may have caught the quote in the title for this post. In the “Spoonful of Sugar” song from the movie, she makes the point that one can lighten a chore by adding a little fun.

Our boys aren’t working graveyard shifts in a factory, but we do see practical applications for teaching them about electronics. Tonight’s gifts come from the series of educational toys from Elenco, Snap Circuits

Hanukkah 8 gifts Snap Circuits 300Snap Circuits do great job of easing a task that some would categorize as work. They are packaged sets of pieces that allow kids“from 8 to 108” per the boxto do experiments with real, working circuits without any messy, skin-singeing soldering.

Go on: ask me why I’m concerned about singeing oneself with solder. No, don’t, because I’m clumsy and easily distracted, and burning flesh is gross. I loved my electrical engineering classes, but lived in fear of implementing what I learned. I would’ve enjoyed these Snap Circuit sets in college!

Instead of soldering wires, the connections are made with oversized snaps like you would find on common garments. They’re as easy to click together as Lego bricks. Unlike a simple Lego connection, however, one must develop an understanding of how electricity flows in order to create working circuits that make electronic projects work.

Never studied electronics? Don’t worry! There’s a very specific manual to walk kids through the different projects.

The boys have had a Snap Circuits starter set for years, and the SC-100 Junior Starter Set is a fine place to begin at any age. Once you have your kid has a grasp on the basic working of the components, you can add on additional kits that either continue with a general education in electronics, or follow a particular theme that might appeal to the user.

For the eighth night of Hanukkah, my older son and possible future game designer received the SCA-200 Snap Circuits Arcade kit. His brother opened up the UC-30 Upgrade Kit SC100 to SC300.

Hanukkah 8 gifts Snap Circuits AAs a parent, one of my favorite things about this company and these kits is the commitment to keeping the sets modular and re-combinable to extend their value. I really appreciate having the choice to buy just the additions I need to move from a beginner’s set to one with more advanced experiments and projects.

Unlike some other company’s products, I’m not forced to either:

  • pay extra for parts I don’t need, or
  • carefully work through lists in tiny print on the back of the box for multiple, similar sets to determine whether or not I’ve missing anything that sounds fun and/or important.

And it isn’t all work with no play! The kids genuinely enjoy fooling around with Snap Circuits kits because they can make real, working models that do stuff. Lights will light up and buzzers will sound, and they will do so more reliably than most kids can manage with regular electronic components even in an educator supported environment.

Naturally, the stuff my boys want to do usually includes “make a loud, obnoxious buzzer in Mom’s ear” or “try to launch the spinner into my brother’s face,” but Elenco isn’t selling magic beans or the promise of more perfect kids. With Snap Circuits, they are selling appealing sets that let children experiment with—and learn about—real electronics without too much muss or fuss.

A supportive adult could be helpful for a total novice or a younger child, but no supervision is necessary to make these kits diverting for kids who like to take stuff apart and/or build things.

Our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts are generally things that we can enjoy as a family. These fit the bill because they give the kids something to play with that leads naturally to learning experiences we like sharing with our boys.

How does that project work? Why did it fail before? What else can you do with those elements? What does that inspire you to try next time? What’s the correlation between this toy and the circuits you can see in household electronics?

I worried a little about ending eight days of holiday giving with the “educational” present, but I shouldn’t have. Snap Circuits are too good. The boys were genuinely pleased to expand their collection.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 8 hanukkiah extinguishing itself - 1

חגחנוכהשמח

*If you’ve never read P.L. Travers’ novels about Mary Poppins, which served as inspiration for the popular 1964 Disney film, please consider doing so. The books were much darker and weirder than the film version, and I loved them as a little girl. This is a case where I think the film is a real classic, but almost a completely different creature from the original work.

Some people on GoodReads seem to find old-fashioned child rearing methods so inappropriate, they can’t even enjoy the books. All I can say is that none of it bothered me as a girl. I would gladly put up with an imperious guardian to enjoy magical adventures; why not let today’s children make that choice for themselves, too?

Hanukkah family fun, night 7: Making tracks with a small gift that has an outsized impact

Read about our celebration of Night 6, here.

I’ve learned over the years that more gifts can lead to less joy, at least for my little not so little boys. Spacing out the individual presents helps, and so does avoiding too many extravagant gifts at the same holiday.

This has been one of my hardest parenting lessons to internalize: don’t overwhelm the kids with gifts that attempt to quantify your infinite love.

  • It’s impossible.
  • You’ll spoil them.
  • Your house will overflow with stuff at a cost far exceeding its value.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. I also try to alternate bigger impact gifts with simpler pleasures, and spread out amongst all eight nights the presents I believe will most please different members of the family.

Yes, that’s right: I had a plan all along. Could anyone who knows me think I just wrapped this stuff up and grabbed boxes at random to throw at my family? There’s a spreadsheet, of course. It’s all about the pacing.

Hanukkah 7 simple track on table - 1Night seven was one for simple pleasures, and enjoying what we’ve already got.

The boys opened two boxes of additional Lego train tracks (Flexible & Straight Set 7499 and Switching Tracks Set 7895) for our Winter Holiday Train and its Station. You’ll want to begin with Nights 1 and 2 to hear more about those.

We spent the rest of the evening building circuits and inventing ridiculous scenarios for the minifigs and trains on the table.

Hanukkah 7 minifig throwing switch - 1

What’s she up to? No good!

I thought about providing the track right after the train, but this seemed to be a better plan. For one thing, we often but not always get a set built in one evening. Why rush the extra track onto the scene if the train wasn’t ready to roll?

More importantly, my little guy has had several days of marveling over the Station’s details and pushing the train up to the platform on its simple loop of track. Each time he immersed himself in the scene, he became more aware of how much he would enjoy expanding it and connecting it to another part of his imaginary world.

He’s been musing to himself for a few evenings:

“Wouldn’t it be cool to have a track that led to…”

Now, he can make that happen, and he’s ready to put in the effort to make it happen with no other distractions for the evening. The boys even dug into our existing Lego sets and pulled out an older, motorized train Grandma bought for a Christmas past.

This led inexorably to the aggressive shunting of steam engine and holiday trucks by a Diesel locomotive. Shades of the Island of Sodor, anyone? If you don’t get the reference, commence reading the Reverend Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine immediately.

A few pieces of track don’t make an extravagant gifteven at Lego prices, but today it has an immediate value to my younger, somewhat more materialistic son.† He also receives the gift of a modest object that gratifies his imagination above all else.

Too many toys are too easily forgotten in the chaos of more, more, more. The right accessory on Night 7 served to reignite all the excitement from those first, bigger gifts.

At least, that was my nefarious plan, which will be discovered if my kids start reading my blog.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 7 hanukkiah lighting - 1

חגחנוכהשמח

Stay tuned for the final night of Hanukkah, Night 8.

The big kid just loves to build. He always sees the value in a gift of parts to expand on a modular set. The trick with him—and, it must be noted, with Mommy—is to remind him to graciously allow the younger child to assemble some tracks and learn for himself why symmetry and careful planning are so important when it comes to engineering a system of moving parts.

We didn’t mean to make the little guy cry! Sigh. And, eventually, he did get to play, too.

Hanukkah family fun, night 6: Volumes for our library

Revisit Night 5, here.

Whether you’ve read my posts or visited my house, it should be fairly obvious that I love to read.

Books are a vital ingredient in my happiness, and I think I’ve successfully passed that addiction preference along to my children with plenty of assistance from my equally bibliophilic husband and both of our families.

I doubt that a single gift-giving occasion has passed in our household without someone giving or receiving a new book.

For the sixth night of Hanukkah, I gave each of my boys something interesting to read.

The younger one got an audiobook about his latest obsession: D&D*.

Hanukkah 6 gift graphic novel - 1For the older one, there was one book of comedic philosophy by a pair of authors we’d enjoyed together in audio form, and one graphic novel set in a video game universe he likes that was on his wish list. It hardly seemed fair to make a gift of something to which I’d introduced him as schoolwork, though the philosophy book was a really fun read/listen.

Both had a book that tied in to the game night theme from night five, and all volumes were graciously received, even the educational one.

I like to make our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts things that we can enjoy as a family. We still read together, though even our youngest child is himself now admirably literate.

I think it’s a shame when parents believe ability to read means the kids no longer benefit from reading aloud together. Language was meant for communication, and stories were created to be told and shared.

Audiobooks make a great shortcut when Mom and Dad are tired; having a kid with young eyes become the nighttime storyteller works great, too.

Wishing everyone a sweet bedtime story on this winter’s evening.

Happy Hanukkah!

חגחנוכהשמח

Hanukkah 6 hanukkiah lighting - 1

Click on for night seven.

*The role playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, whose other books include Heidegger and a Hippo Walk through those Pearly Gates: Using philosophy (and jokes!) to explain life, death, the afterlife, and everything in betweenand Aristotle and an Aardvark go to Washington: Understanding political doublespeak through philosophy and jokes.