Happy Henukkah! Senator Paula Simons leads Edmonton on a festive wild-goose chase

Henday, the hen, hiding in plain sight in Edmonton. (Credit: Paula Simons)

Why did the chicken cross over into Hanukkah celebrations?

A fair question. After all, chickens aren’t a traditional part of the festival of lights. Sure, chickens make excellent Shabbat soup stars, but they aren’t usually part of the Hanukkah table. (Not, at least, if you want to put sour cream on your latkes. And surely, we all want to put sour cream on our latkes.)

Besides, the chicken who is the star of this story isn’t for eating. She’s too tough for that. She’s a larger-than-life size papier-mache hen, who was once part of the décor at an Earls restaurant on Edmonton’s Jasper Avenue. When Earls changed decorating schemes it sold off the chickens, and my parents bought several of them as a sort of a family joke.

That’s how she came to be the leading lady of my regular Edmonton photo scavenger hunt, a social media shtick I call #yegquest. (Because #yeg is the Edmonton hashtag—and because it rhymes with egg.)

I named the chicken Henday—because she’s a hen, and because one of Edmonton’s more notable features is Anthony Henday ring road, named for the great western explorer.

On and off, over the years, I’ve staged these hunts through the streets of Edmonton—posting pictures of Henday in various secret locations, in a bid to encourage Edmontonians to explore their city. It was something I started when I was a columnist at the Edmonton Journal, and continued after I was named to the Senate of Canada.

But this year? This year, I decided to honour my own Jewish roots, and to give the event a Hanukkah twist. This year, Henday is leading Edmontonians on a winter adventure called the Eight Days (plus one) of Henukkah. Every day of this Henukkah Hanukkah, I post a new picture of Henday to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Mastodon, with a silly clue to help people to track her down. Then they take a picture in the same location, and post it on their own social media sites with the #yegquest hashtag.

It’s all deeply silly, of course. Some of the locations where Henday has roosted have a smidge of Yiddishkeit about them. (The backdrop for the fourth day of Henukkah, for example, was Edmonton’s famous statue of Bob and Doug Mackenzie. And though Bob and Doug aren’t canonically Jewish, Rick Moranis certainly is.)

But most of the sites have no particular connection to Judaism nor Edmonton’s own Jewish history. What they do have in common, however, is that they are all spots that celebrate Edmonton’s artistic and cultural heritage—and all sites that celebrate Edmonton’s particular multicultural sense of community.

What I love about Edmonton is the way people in this city share their cultures and traditions. I love our annual Heritage Festival, where hundreds of thousands of Edmontonians come together to celebrate their traditional foods and dance and music in one giant three-day outdoor party.

I love that when new refugee families arrive in Edmonton, they’re often greeted by Indigenous dancers and drummers, who come to the airport to perform Cree welcome songs.

I love that we have a Cariwest Caribbean festival in which all kinds of Edmontonians, from all over the world, dance through the downtown.

I love that in a winter week like this, when the temperatures, with windchill, hit -45 C, the Al Rashid Mosque and the Jewish Federation of Edmonton worked together on a project to help the homeless.

This December, in the face of rising antisemitism around the world—and on social media platforms—I wanted to defy the haters. I wanted to share the joy of the festival of lights in a time of literal and figurative darkness. I wanted to troll the trolls, by filling my feeds with happy, positive messages about Edmonton’s Jewish community.

I was delighted that the Jewish Federation of Edmonton agreed to partner with me on this year’s #yegquest, and touched by what the Federation’s CEO, Stacey Leavitt-Wright told the Edmonton Journal about Henday’s scrambled hunt.

“We want to ensure that people rejoice in this beautiful heritage, and that the Jewish identity isn’t motivated by denouncing antisemitism, but by partaking in something joyful, and what that brings,” Leavitt-Wright told the paper.

I couldn’t invite everyone in Edmonton to my house for latkes. But I could spread a little Hanukkah light – and honour my paternal Jewish heritage – by indulging in some Henukkah humour. And I could share with the online world the quirky magic of an Edmonton winter, where people of all kinds of faiths and backgrounds bundle up, even when it’s -45 C, to take part in a goofy Hanukkah treasure hunt.

It’s a most unorthodox celebration. But if it’s brought laughter to people in this difficult season, that’s enough of a small miracle for me.

Paula Simons is an Independent senator from Alberta.