Celebrating Hanukkah Whole-Heartedly, Even With Pain

Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday also known the Festival of Lights, began this year at sunset on December 12 and ends at sunset December 20. This holiday is an important part of the Jewish religious tradition, commemorating miracles that occurred during 200 BCE when the Jews successfully drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem. The eight-day celebration marks the period of time when a lamp in a destroyed temple with just one days’ worth of oil burned for eight straight nights until the Jews could find more oil.

While Hanukkah is a sacred time of year that marks the triumph of light over darkness, for those with chronic pain, some of the traditions during this time may take them to a physically dark place. The menorah is lit each night for eight nights, marking the miracle of the oil, and gifts are given on each night. In addition to this simple ceremony, celebrations often include dancing, games, and traditional foods that can wreak havoc in the body of someone suffering from chronic pain. Here are some ways to gift and celebrate this beautiful holiday whole-heartedly, even with chronic pain.

1. Pace yourself

It’s important to pace yourself in activities during the week of Hanukkah. If you live near a large extended family, it may be necessary to choose among the nightly celebrations in order to be present for the ones that are really important to you.

Explain to your family that you want to be present and pain-free on the most important nights. These may be the times when your family attends temple together, or it may be on the first and last nights of Hanukkah. Your family might want you to be physically present at all gatherings, but it is important to explain to them that doing so could cause you to be mentally present at none of them.

2. Don’t forget exercise

With the shorter daylight hours and more activities in the evenings and on weekends, it can be easy to let exercise fall by the wayside during Hanukkah. Don’t let that happen. Moderate daily exercise is key in managing many symptoms of chronic pain, including both pain and fatigue. You needn’t plan for daily hour-long workouts to keep active. Aim for at least 30 minutes, spread out across the day. This can be 15 minutes of downward facing dog in the morning and a 15-minute dog walk in the afternoon.

Build exercise into your day easily by parking far away from building entrances and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Get the whole family involved in a nightly after-dinner walk around the block. Take flashlights and bundle up. Watch the stars come out, and talk about your day.

Whatever you choose, keep exercise a consistent part of your day.

3. Stick to a pain-friendly diet

This may seem a counterintuitive or impossible suggestion. After all, Hanukkah is filled with some of the most delicious treats imaginable: latkes (potato pancakes) with sour cream and applesauce, sufganiyot (jelly-filled fried doughnuts), and gelt, chocolate coins used in the game of dreidel. Is it even possible to make it through one family meal?

Absolutely. The key is moderation and choosing wisely.

Many traditional Hanukkah meals are largest on the first and final nights. They often feature roast chicken, matzo ball soup, latkes, and sufganiyot. Fill your plate with roasted chicken and vegetables before you reach for the latkes and sufganiyot. This will help you to feel more full but still allow for a small taste of Hanukkah treats.

Limit yourself to one small treat per evening, and vary them. For example, eight straight nights of sugary treats may cause a sharp increase in your pain levels as the week progresses. If food is an important part of the celebration for you, try smaller portions of treats and eat them slowly. Stick to water with your meals, and keep the rest of your food during this time healthy and as unprocessed as possible.

Sometimes it is helpful to have a buddy to keep you on track at family dinners. Maybe they will even join you in support, eating smaller portions of treats as well.

hanukkah pain

4. Talk to your family

The above guidelines may be very difficult to follow when you are surrounded by so many delicious foods. It can also be trying when family members don’t quite understand what you are trying to do (protect yourself from a pain flare-up). It is crucial to communicate with family members who don’t understand. Chronic pain is an invisible illness, and many people still think it does not exist.

What they don’t realize is that those people who “don’t look sick” are often trying really hard to appear “normal” and well. This effort may result in rebound pain or extreme fatigue. Avoid this by being as honest and open as you can with those around you. You may want to share some of the most damaging myths surrounding chronic pain.

Ultimately, some of your family members may not understand. And that’s okay. There is no need to spend energy convincing someone else you are in pain. You can still love them, even if they don’t understand. They still love you, too.

5. Schedule rest

Finally, in the rush of the holidays, with so many fun (and some not-so-fun but still necessary) things to do, it is very important to schedule rest. This may be something as simple as a quick 30-minute nap, or it may be an entire day off with nothing planned. Your schedule might include a nightly bath with Epsom salts to help improve the quality of sleep (crucial this time of year, especially if you suffer from symptoms of seasonal affective disorder as well as chronic pain) or a daily walk for some easy exercise.

Whatever it is that helps you to reset and re-charge, make that a priority, especially during Hanukkah but really all year long. The more energy you can build up through exercise, restful sleep, and mindfulness meditation, the better you will feel as you celebrate and spend time with your family.

“A candle is a small thing. But one candle can light another. And see how its own light increases, as a candle gives its flame to the other. You are such a light.” — Moshe Davis

6. Simplify gift giving

The pressure is on: every one of the eight Hanukkah gift you choose must be perfect, cheerfully given. Instead of imagining the smiles each gift will receive, all you can think about is slogging your way through another post-Thanksgiving holiday rush to save money and buy vast amounts of stuff. But what if gift giving could be simplified? Who says a gift always needs to be a thing? If you find Hanukkah and holiday gift-giving to be stressful and the gifts themselves to be a little sticky, here are ten ways to simplify gift gifting (including some simplified gifts!).

Give experiences

This cannot be repeated enough. Chances are good that your nine-year-old niece has plenty of toys, books, and clothes. Treat her to something novel, like a museum or zoo membership in her name, or tickets to a baseball game. Find a hotel that offers a fancy tea and make reservations. Anything to get out into the world, doing something.

Give simplicity 

Stick to simple, traditional gifts like dreidels, gelt, or menorahs for at least a few of the nights. Find some budget-friendly options like board games or school supplies too. Hanukkah’s ties to tradition are one of the most powerful parts of this holiday. INdulge in this by telling stories about these gifts, and creating spaces away from loud, big gifts.

Give time

For harried parents, offer babysitting. For elderly neighbors, offer lawn care or companionship or a trip to the grocery store. We can make virtually unlimited amounts of money if we want to, but time is a limited resource for everyone. Give your time and you give yourself.

Give cookbooks

Collect your family recipes into a small book and have it printed at the office supply store. In the digital age, cookbooks may have fallen off a bit, but there is nothing like giving a beautiful cookbook for a deeply personal gift.

Give realistic expectations

Maybe Hanukkah means one small gift for seven nights (chocolate coins, a book, a small giftcard) and one large gift on the last night. Whatever your tradition, set expectations early and stress the aspects that each of the holidays share: family, love, and compassion for others. Let those be your guiding principles for the holiday, not mounds of gifts.

Give yourself a break

Use Amazon to organize everyone’s wish lists, then spend the money to join Amazon Prime. This year-long subscription offer free two-day shipping, plus access to unlimited Prime movie and music downloads. Prime subscribers also have access to Amazon’s food delivery services. Plus, you can share the membership, offsetting the cost. You are still giving presents, but without the lines and the stress.

Holiday gift giving should be joyful in the truest sense of the word: filled with joy. If you find yourself stressed, bitter, or resentful at all of the holiday giving, it’s time to take a step back and figure out what you want your holidays to be like.

“On Hanukkah, the first dark night, light yourself a candle bright. I’ll you, if you will me invite, to dance within that gentle light.” — Nicholas Gordon

How can you create balance and peace this year during Hanukkah?