Tonight marks the first night of the Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah - because it's transliterated from Hebrew).
This year happens to mark a crazy historic moment, when the first full day of Hanukkah tomorrow coincides with Thanksgiving. This phenom known as "Thanksgivukkah" hasn't happened since Thanksgiving was declared a holiday by President Abe Lincoln in 1863! When will it happen again? Depends on who you ask... some say it will come around again in 2070, while others analyze calendars and believe we won't see this cross-over again for another 79,000 years!
My family and I will be dealing with this holiday mashup this weekend -- Turkey on Thursday and Latkes on Friday. Weird...
Meanwhile, we asked fellow D-Advocate and blogger Aliza Chana Zaleon, a 27-year-old Orthodox Jew in North Carolina, to share her thoughts about Thanksgivukkah.
While Aliza says she doesn't have a clear diagnosis on a specific type of diabetes, she uses an insulin pump and CGM (continuous glucose monitor). She's been blogging since April 2011 at Aliza with Diabetes, and professionally works as a certified holistic health coach at Health In My Mind. As an obersvant Jewish woman, she says you'll always find her "wearing a long skirt and king sleeve shirt no matter the season and following the rules for observing the Sabbath and holidays."
A perfect D-peep to share her thoughts on living with diabetes during Thanksgivukkah...
So, what does the convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah mean to fellow people with diabetes celebrating Thanksgivukkah this year? Each holiday, by itself, has its own carbohydrate-filled traditions traditions, but there are definitely plenty of things that are special about this once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that don't have to revolve around carb and calorie-packed treats.
Central to both Thanksgiving and Chanukah is the theme of freedom. During Chanukah, we are celebrating the hard-won freedom of the Jewish people to pray, to worship, and celebrate as they choose. During Thanksgiving, we are also celebrating religious freedom. The Pilgrims, after all, came to this continent in search of religious freedom.
For those who are unfamiliar, the miracle of Chanukah dates back to the 2nd century BCE, and is two-fold: first, a small troop of Jewish soldiers, the Maccabees, were victorious over Antiochus, a Syrian king who was oppressing them. Secondly, after the Jews were able to recapture their ruined temple, there was only a tiny bit of oil left to light the holy menorah (candelabra) that should have lasted only one night, but instead the oil miraculously lasted eight whole nights -- long enough for a courier to fetch more oil so the light never went out. This is why the Chanukah menorah is lit for eight nights running in our celebrations -- to commemorate this Chanukah miracle.
My family's Chanukah rituals are fairly traditional, much like many other families who celebrate Chanukah across the United States and the world. Each night of Chanukah, we gather together and light the Chanukiah, or special candelabra with space for 9 candles in total -- one for each night of Chanukah, plus the shamash, or "helper" candle, lit first each night, and then used to light each night's candles.
Every night of Chanukah that we are able to be all together, my family and I light the menorah together, sing the blessings together as a family, and sometimes sing some traditional Chanukah songs. When my sister and I were younger, we would also exchange and open gifts after we lit the menorah (big gift-giving was not a really traditional Chanukah practice). A couple of nights during the 8-night holiday, my mom makes homemade latkes, potato pancakes fried in oil, which we have with dinner, but we do not have them every single night of Chanukah. Latkes are typically served with sour cream or applesauce, depending on your particular Jewish heritage.
Like most other holidays, it is a time to stop, spend some time as a family, and really enjoy the moments together. One of my favorite things about lighting the menorah is seeing the progression from darkness into light each night. When you light the menorah, one candle is lit for each night of Chanukah, so you light one candle plus the shamash on the first night, two candles plus the shamash on the second night, three candles plus the shamash the third night, and so on, until you have all eight candles plus the shamash on the last night, or nine candles in total. By the last night, the entire Chanukiah/menorah is filled with light, and is absolutely beautiful. I personally love sitting with the lit Chanukiah/menorah, and watching the lit candles slowly burn. There are many stories in tradition about lit Chanukah candles, and about the special luck that comes if all of the candles burn out on their own at exactly the same moment.
Also traditional is the game of dreidel, those spinning tops I'm sure most of you have seen pictured as a symbol of Chanukah. It's a simple gambling game that the Jewish men of yore played to distract the authorities from noticing that they were actually gathered to study Torah (the Jewish holy books), because studying of Jewish texts was prohibited in those times by the enemy king. This game is now typically played with the prize being gelt, or traditional Chanukah chocolate coins -- which they even started selling at Trader Joe's a few years ago!
When it comes to food, I've experienced my share of diabetes challenges on Chanukah, but for the most part, I find they can be managed like other holiday meal challenges, especially when I know about those food challenges in advance. If I know that I am going to be attending a Chanukah party, or that we are going to be having latkes, I try to incorporate those in to my carbohydrate planning and replace other carbohydrate-rich foods with the latkes. This isn't always possible, and sometimes, there are more carbohydrates than usual. Especially during Chanukah parties, family gatherings, or meals that end up more like "pot-luck" or "buffet" style meals, I definitely set a temporary basal rate on my insulin pump, and I check my blood glucose levels more frequently due to the temporary basal rate, emotional excitement, and added activity all having an impact on blood glucose levels.
It is certainly not an exact science -- a temporary basal rate that worked beautifully last year often will not be so perfect this year, and even at times, a temp basal that worked wonders one night of Chanukah will not do the same thing for me two days later. During the holiday season, and holidays in general, I try to stay focused on my overall trends rather than one particular blood glucose test, or even one day's blood glucose tests. This helps me to keep some perspective, and to not completely obsess about finding the perfect basal rate.
That's not to say that I don't try to find a rate that will keep me in range, but I don't obsess about one day's numbers. This has been an important development in my diabetes management, and really important for my mental health as well.
I remind myself, especially during times like Thanksgiving and Chanukah (and especially the overlap of the two!), that I am not my diabetes, and I am not a number. My numbers only help me make treatment decisions, and are data points that can help point me in the right direction, like a compass. My numbers do not define me. Sometimes, the trifecta of stress, excitement, and holiday food is just difficult to conquer, and it is okay to accept that your day, diabetes-wise, may not be perfect. It is one day, and that does not have to keep you from striving to achieve tighter control on the other days of the year.
So this year, along with the usual Thanksgiving traditions and diabetes holiday practices that come along with a holiday so heavily centered around food, Chanukah, and its food traditions will be added to the mix. I'm thankful that our Chankuah food traditions can be somewhat easily added to the Thanksgiving table, without much extra burden to carbohydrate counting and insulin dosing, but it will take a bit of extra thought. How much extra insulin do I need for that latke (traditional Chanukah potato pancake), and if I eat the latke, should I still have a serving of sweet potatoes or stuffing? On this once-in-a-lifetime event, the first night of Chanukah coinciding with Thanksgiving, moderation will be key, just like with any other Thanksgiving or holiday dinner.
Diabetes doesn't have to win; focus on family, friends, and holiday traditions can be the true winners of the night. Think about all of the special non-food traditions that you have for the holiday, both Thanksgiving and Chanukah, and focus on those if the food traditions throw you for a loop. Spend time with friends and family, enjoy lighting the Thanksgivukkah menorah, and watching the light of the first candles burning. Sing Chanukah songs with your family and friends, play a game of dreidel, or play other games that can involve the whole family.
Thanks for sharing your perspective, Aliza. Hope these dual holidays treat you well, and that everyone enjoys a D-stress-free Thanksgiving!