When I was young, Passover meant the glasses with the disappearing pattern. They were small glasses with a red and blue pattern and when they were filled at the seder, the blue would get lost in front of the deep purple grape juice, the red just barely perceptible beside it. We only had a few of them, but I loved choosing those cups for myself. For me, those glasses meant it was Passover.
There were other items. Objects that we used once a year, unboxed in our kitchen late at night or early in the morning, appearing on newly cleaned shelves for the week of the holiday. Special bowls that belonged to my grandmothers. A funny shaped spoon that I loved to use to make chocolate milk. A hand-mixer, a nut grater, an apple chopper that seemed to come from the shtetl. They were treasures rediscovered year after year, but the feelings surrounding them never got old, the anticipation of seeing them never waning.
Passover was a magical time. I would go to sleep late after we finished the formal search for the Chametz and when I awoke the next day, our kitchen was transformed into a tin-foiled covered wonderland, my mother at the stovetop in front of a pot that could easily bathe an average sized child, cutting vegetables for a chicken soup. I have clear memories of my older sister peering out of the kitchen cabinets while she lined them with paper for the new dishes that waited in the boxes to be used for that one week of the year, and I remember complaining that it was unfair that I never got to climb into the cabinets like she did.
Most Passover traditions are universal. Everyone leans at the table, asks the four questions, opens the door for Elijah. The seder itself is a sensory experience – the tear-inducing smell of the marror, the crisp feel of the matzah, the careful glancing (but no pointing!) towards the zeroa, the unique songs, and of course, the taste of everything, from the salt water tears, to the four cups of wine. But some other traditions are unique from family to family. They are the distinct symbols that take one back to Passovers past – the colored cups for me, the special table cloth for someone else – the symbols that say, “This is Passover.” Moreso than the wine and the matzah.
When I first started having my own seders in my home, my collection of unique Passover traditions grew slowly. One of them, though, was completely unintentional. Our seders required adding an extension to our dining room table. So in the interest of comfort, we swapped our dining room with our living room, moving the couches into a smaller area and eating our meals in the larger living room space. It was a practical decision to make our guests (and our meal) more comfortable, and we did it every year.
About eight years ago, we moved to a new house with a much larger dining room. As Passover preparations winded down, my daughter asked me when we were transferring the dining room and the living room. I told her we didn’t need to, there was enough space in the new house. She looked at me with a look of absolute horror, as if I had suggested we forego the matzah and just eat bread.
And with that, I realized that the room transformation was her blue and red glass. It was what “made” it Passover. The feelings, the vibe, the clear demarkation that Passover had come to the home was the moment our dining room magically appeared in the living room.
Traditions create the ambiance of Passover. They are like fairy-dust, sprinkling magic into the holiday in a way that the tin-foil coverings and unique glasses did for me as a child. Religious observances are difficult. It is not easy to sell a toddler on Matzah Pizza when they are crying for a bagel. It is not easy to stay awake at a seder, to cook ridiculous amounts of food for so many people for so many meals. But the memories of Passover are sweet because of the feelings we create around those observances. The memories we unpack each year, the feelings the objects evoke, the sense of family and tradition they create, tell stories in a much more powerful way than the haggadah. It’s why I have special dishes for Passover. It’s why I make special once a year recipes. It’s why we sing unique family tunes at the seder.
And it’s why, even though we don’t have to, we always swap our living room with our dining room.