The decorations, the Holiday foods, the presents…wait a minute, what holiday are we talking about? Oh, right, Chanukah! Because of the aspirations of some modern era Jews wanting to fit in and be contemporary, Chanukah now must compete with the excesses of Christmas marketing. The stories of these two holidays are very different, but the traditions and celebrations are remarkably familiar with various twists. Some people I know even have a Chanukah Bush, replete with blue and white decorations. As an aside, Chanukah is actually a lesser holiday, celebrating the Jews’ victory over an evil Assyrian King who oppressed the Jews and defiled their Temple. The holiday celebrates the miracle of the oil used to light the menorah (candelabra) in the temple which should have lasted only 1 day, but ended up burning for 8 days. I love this holiday for a variety of reasons, 12 of them to be exact.
1. Latkes, or potato pancakes
This is an excuse to deep fry grated potatoes in oil and dunk them in applesauce or sour cream all in the name of the miracle of the oil. For real authenticity, use a food processor and for added fortitude, grate a little by hand. Here’s a latke recipe for these tasty delectables.
2. Cool Menorahs
When my kids were young, they all had their own menorah, (an 8-branched candelabra, with a 9th branch for the “helper” candle) and would light a candle, adding one each night for each of the 8 days. None was more favored than the Noah’s Ark menorah, each kid fighting to light the bunny.
3. Minimilist decorations
Each year I drag out the window clings and hanging decorations, flimsy, and worn, but filled with benign sentiment. One of my hanging decorations has an “H” missing, so it reads “appy Hannukah”!
4. Presents – 8 of them!
It used to be one present for each day, and they were not very extravagant, especially if you multiply by several kids. Gifts ranged from yo-yo’s to books, video games and clothing. The kids eventually grew bored with these practical gifts and would also rush through dinner just to receive them. This grew old quickly. The new tradition of one big gift given was started after one too many, “Mom, socks again?”
5. Eight days instead of one
Makes it easy to see the family, especially if it’s a large one or separated by distance. If you don’t catch them on day 1, you have another 7 to see your relatives. You can relegate the last few days to your least favorites! (I won’t tell) Besides, how much more festive do you feel if you know you have an 8 day holiday. Party time!
6. Chanukah Gelt
Growing up, my Dad used to give me Gelt, or coins, every night. With my kids, real coins have been replaced by chocolate wrapped gold coins. My favorite: dark chocolate ones!
7. Chanukah Lights (sorta)
Since, Chanukah is the Festival of Lights, let there be light! I admit, I have what I can only call “Christmas lights envy.” They are beautiful, festive and also serve to light up streets, unlit by streetlamps. We place an orange or blue bulbed electric menorah in the window to advertise our holiday with some form of paltry light.
8. More fried food
Those of Israeli descent indulge in sufganiyot, or fried doughnuts, filled with jelly. Again, in commemoration of the miracle of the oil, you can eat fried foods without gaining any weight. Yes, I just made that up.
9. Dreidel game
The dreidel is a spinning top, and depending on what hebrew letter it lands on, leads to losing or gaining money, poker chips or chocolate gelt, depending on how old you are. My Dad used to use walnuts or peanuts in their shells. Our family plays for pennies, so the stakes are low. We have collected a sizable collection of wooden and plastic dreidels in various sizes and colors and usually end up having dreidel spin and knock-down contests.
The Jewish rebel army who fought for religious freedom and reclaimed the holy Temple were cool, fighting heroes, bearing swords. Their battles were re-enacted by my sons when they were young because it would be an excuse for them to use make believe swords, i.e. forks, rulers or sticks, anything with the capacity to strike blows.
11. Creative spelling
This is the only holiday I know of that does away with the convention of correct spelling. This holiday literally means, “dedication”. You can spell it as : Chanukah, Hanukkah, Chanukkah or Hanukah. They’re all correct..gold coins for everyone!
12. Unique Chanukah songs
I can’t say I own any Chanukah song albums or DVD’s but I do have one cassette tape of ditties like: “ I had a little dreidel” and “Oh Chanukah Oh Chanukah” My recent favorite is Adam Sandler’s Chanukah Song.
However you celebrate, it’s still an excuse for carrying on tradition, family get-togethers and eating high-caloric, delicious foods.
What are your favorite things or questions about Chanukah?
Lily Zajc, is a copywriter, public relations professional, and blogger on fitness and exercise for Three Village Patch, on Long Island, N.Y. She is a mother to 3 and only daughter to 1. Migrating from Brooklyn to Long Island as a young adult, she learned to re-invent herself from professional to parent, back to professional, along with being a long distance care-taker. She enjoys exercise, yoga, music, her poodles and exploring social media.
Dear Lily, I absolutely loved your post. There are many beautiful things in Jewish tradition and celebrations that I think a lot of people miss out on experiencing or knowing. Thank you for sharing your stories in this fun 12 most! @DixieLil
Of course, I love Sandler's song ;). Here is an anecdote for you. We were at a Christmas party hosted by Christian Jews, and they did the white elephant gift. One of them was a menorah. My wife was close friends with the hostess. At the last minute she swapped for the menorah from an older jewish lady (because she secretly wanted to give it to the hostess). The lady was not happy, and my wife always felt guilty (with a little bit of a smile) for stealing a menorah from a jewish lady.
I never understood why this was not a major holiday: with the Jews’ victory over an evil Assyrian King who oppressed the Jews and defiled their Temple, and the oil lasted 8 days. These seem like major accomplishments to me
Also, you are right with #4. It is difficult to fill up eight days of presents. Last year we gave our two kids electric toothbrushes. The teacher asked what my youngest got for Hanukkah and he told the teacher that he got a toothbrush, he did not mention the other big gifts.
@spofcher You are right, it is a big deal. You know the old joke about Jewish holidays with their singular themes: "They tried to kill us...we won...let's eat!" I'm sure the teacher gave your child the sympathy he was looking for after mentioning he only got an electric toothbrush! : )
I have a parenting suggestion for #4 - the gift of 8 presents. Teach your children to give ONE to charity and ONE to Mom and ONE to Dad. If there are siblings, ONE day should be giving to one another. That still leaves FOUR for them!
Lily, loved this post (of course!) and so glad that we're getting some nice Chanukah coverage :-). Just have to piggyback Bruce's comment: Last year, my younger son (now 3 1/2) had a serious tantrum when he realized he couldn't open all the presents at once. It took him a few days to catch on that he was getting something every night, and once he figured it out... well, let's just say the remaining nights weren't pretty. I second the spa, Lily! @DixieLil@BruceSallan
We have a large jar of dried lima beans to use as chips for the dreidel game. The beans are about 23 years old, dating from the time I decided I was no good at preparing dried beans. That's also the time I learned to make my own sufganiyot. Happy memories! Thanks for reminding me.
I love this post! I still remember enjoying learning of latkes and olive oil and the Maccabees, which as a non-Jewish girl I fell in love with. Mainly because of the fun of running as fast as we could and shouting, "MACCABEES!" for hours! Thanks for a great memory, even if I didn't share in yours growing up. :D
I love this post, especially #1, My daughter makes the best potato pancakes. Our family is a blended one, my husband has Jewish heritage, and mine Irish Catholic. (probably why we love Latkes so much!) We blend the traditions and even decorate our Christmas Tree exclusively in blue and silvery white glass bulbs!
PS, I too migrated from Brooklyn to Long Island, now am just outside DC.
Lily, this post is great! My personal favorite is #1 We love potato pancakes! My daughter makes the best! My husband's family has Jewish heritage, and mine Catholic. We blend the two, celebrate each and every holiday. For example our Christmas Tree is decorated only with Blue & Silvery White glass bulbs.
Focusing on the meaning of the day, and not the commercialism surrounding it makes it special!
PS, I too migrated from Brooklyn to Long Island.. now just outside DC.
I remember the first time I heard the Adam Sandler Hanukkah song, and I thought "yay! one for my people!" This list does indeed include just about everything good about Hanukkah, but my absolute favorite is number 1 - there's nothing like latkes, though they are a real pain to make! Happy holidays.