Growing up surrounded by people celebrating Christmas, I was often jealous. Christmas seemed like this magical holiday that could not possibly be matched by any others. Once I grew up, got married to someone non-Jewish, and had children in a Christmas-celebrating house, I realized that I was right: Christmas is the bomb dot com, no doubt about it. Nothing can rival it.
Luckily, despite many people’s mistaken perceptions, Hanukkah is not attempting to do so. Hanukkah (or Chanukah), unlike the Jewish high holidays Rosh Hashanah (the new year) and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), is a minor festival that just happens to fall somewhere close to Christmas most years.
It is such a minor festival, actually, that it is one of the few that the Hebrew Bible doesn’t mention. Nevertheless, it holds a special place in my heart and memories. Here are five Hanukkah traditions that I want to pass on to my children.
Lighting the Hanukkah menorah (called the Hanukkiah)
The candles on the menorah are lit one at a time each night from right to left until we reach eight (plus one for the central shamash, or helper candle, which we use to light all the other candles). We sing specific prayers while lighting them. Families traditionally place their menorah in a doorway or window for others to see. The candles are suppose to burn down entirely each night.
We light the candles to commemorate one of the miracles of Hanukkah. When the Jewish Temple was ruined by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) in 167 BCE, the Jews were trying to rededicate the Temple with oil. However, they only had enough oil for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for an entire eight nights. This was enough for them to complete the rededication. The word “Hanukkah” means “Dedication”. We also celebrate the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE). This is where a small group of Jewish rebels won the battle against the Syrian-Greeks’ attempt to suppress their religion.
The candles are pretty and soothing, and one of my favorite Hanukkah traditions!
Eating potato latkes (potato pancakes)
Potato latkes are a traditional food of Hanukkah. Most people eat their latkes with sour cream or applesauce. As a nod to the miracle of the oil, traditional Hanukkah foods are fried with oil (olive oil if possible). Another traditional food is sufganiyot, or doughnuts. Yummy!
Singing Hanukkah songs
You may already know at least one Hanukkah song, as most of them are simple, catchy tunes that involve a lot of repetition. These songs celebrate the candles, the dreidels, the oil, and the Maccabean victory. The most famous are “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” (“I Have a Little Dreidel”) and “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah!”
This is already one of my children’s favorite Hanukkah traditions. They bring out their dreidels to play with year-round. Dreidels are small spinning tops. They have a Hebrew letter on each side that represents a word in the sentence meaning “A Great Miracle Happened There (“Here” when in Israel).”
The game of dreidel is a very simple game involving a pot in the middle, usually made up of chocolate coins (gelt)or pennies. On the surface, the dreidel game is fun and lighthearted. It is thought that the game may have been invented in a time when the Syrian-Greeks outlawed studying the Torah (the Jewish religious text).
Supposedly, if they were caught, the Jews who had gathered to study would pretend they were playing dreidel instead.
Giving small gifts
Growing up, my non-Jewish friends were sometimes jealous of me that I received “eight gifts” for the eight days of Hanukkah. In doing research for this article, I learned that there are ways to interpret gift-giving as a tradition historically related to Hanukkah.
Many believe it has more to do with the “competition” with Christmas and many Jewish children feeling left out during the Christmas season. Whatever the origin, the gifts given, at least in my experience, tend to be small ones, especially for most of the eight nights.
Despite the fantasy many of my friends had of me getting a television one night, a bike the next, etc., the truth was that some nights I got only a bag of Hanukkah gelt, and the last night would be the “big” gift.
I am trying to continue this tradition with my children. However, it is challenging when you compare it to Christmas! While it is not the focus of Hanukkah, the spirit of giving is nice to celebrate in any context.
For more information on Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays, check out these websites:
Another great resource for teaching kids about Jewish holidays is the Shalom Sesame video series, available at most libraries and on YouTube.