I grew up with a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, so I was exposed to all sorts of holiday traditions. Although we celebrated Christmas at home, we’d go to my paternal grandmother’s house every December to observe Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights. We’d gather at some point during the celebration to light candles and enjoy traditional Hanukkah foods. Showing our kids different cultural celebrations goes a long way in promoting love and tolerance. If you’re not Jewish, you might be able to ask a close friend who is, if you can join her family one of the eight nights of Hanukkah. Or, you could read about the traditions with your children and, if you want to, try to recreate some of the foods or play some of the holiday’s games. Here are some things to consider:
- A bit of background: Hanukkah is the celebration of a miracle. After the Jews defeated the Syrian Greeks around the year 165 BC, they re-dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem and lit the menorah, or candelabra. They had only a little bit of oil, but the miracle was that the candles continued to burn for eight nights until they were able to find more oil.
- Foods: Traditional Hanukkah foods are often fried in oil to commemorate the reason for the celebration. My grandmother always made latkes, which are potato pancakes cooked in oil. Serve these with a dollop of sour cream or applesauce. Some families also make homemade doughnuts. Another traditional Hanukkah food is cheese or cheesecake, which has to do with the story of a Jewish woman named Judith who carried cheese and defeated the leader of the Babylonian army.
- Games: Have you ever seen a dreidel? It’s a little spinning top with four flat sides. On each side is a Hebrew character: Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin. Together, these figures make up a Hebrew acronym, which stands for the phrase, “A great miracle happened here.” Children start off with a pile of coins (we always used gelt, or chocolate coins!) and depending on which character each of the spins land on, he receives or gives up some of his treasure.
- The Menorah: The menorah is a candelabra with nine candles: One for each night of Hanukkah, and one “shamash,” or helper, candle, which is used to light the others. Traditionally, one candle is lit each night of Hanukkah, so that at the end of the observance, all nine candles are burning brightly. Many Jewish families use electric versions of the menorah so they can leave them lit around the clock without any fire risk. Depending on where you live, you might see menorah displays alongside or instead of creche displays on public property.
While Hanukkah is often talked about as though it’s the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, it really isn’t. While children receive eight gifts, one each night, they’re often small. Instead of being a commercialized holiday, Hanukkah is usually considered a ceremonial observance or celebration. Of course, that depends on the family celebrating it!
Do you celebrate Hanukkah? If not, do you have a friend or a family member who does and who might let you join the celebration one night this month?