Hanukkah Traditions

Young boy playing dreidel
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Holidays give Jews a wonderful opportunity to share traditions and stories with their children. In the process, families create warm memories that can last a lifetime and perhaps inspire children to create future memories with their own children.

Hanukkah, which is sometimes called the Festival of Lights, is one such holiday. It falls every year in late November or December on the secular calendar and lasts for eight days and nights. During this time, Jews remember how their ancestors reclaimed the Holy Temple from the Syrian-Greeks and then rededicated it to God. 

While Hanukkah is not a major holiday in Jewish tradition, it has become increasingly important because it coincides with (or is very close to) Christmas. While it is by no means a secularized holiday, Hanukkah in America does include many of the same elements as Christmas.

In addition to lighting the Hanukkah menorah together, there are several other ways Jews can celebrate Hanukkah with family, as described below. Some of the ideas are traditional ones, while others are more modern examples of how the joy of Hanukkah can be shared with loved ones.

Lighting of the Menorah

A menorah is a candelabra. While most Jewish menorahs have just seven branches, the Hanukkah menorah (also called the hanukiyyah) has eight branches and a central candle holder. Eight of the branches represent the eight days of Hanukkah, while the central candle holder holds a special candle called the shamash, or servant. The shamash is used to light the other candles night by night. The shamash is used because the other eight candles are considered to be holy, which means they can't be used for something as practical as lighting another candle.

Hanukkah candles must be lit just before sunset after specific prayers are recited. They are lit in a prescribed order:

  1. On the first night, one candle is placed in the candle holder on the far right. The shamash is lit and used to light the first candle.
  2. On the second night, another candle is added next to the first one, and both candles are lit from left to right. In other words, the newer candle is lit first.
  3. Each night, another candle is added to the menorah until, on the last night of the holiday, all eight candles and the shamash are lit.

Blessings and Prayers

Blessings and prayers are sung before the Hanukkah candles are lit. On the first day, all of the three blessings below are sung. On all other days except Shabbat, only the first two blessings are sung.

  • Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.
  • Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.
  • Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.

Songs

Hanukkah is not a holiday known for its music, but it has inspired a number of contemporary songs in English, Hebrew, and even Yiddish. In addition, Hanukkah blessings (like other Jewish prayers) are all sung. Two traditional songs that are sung right after the lighting of each night's candles include Maoz Tzur (about the many times that God delivered the Jewish people from their enemies) and Hanerot Halalu (which tells the Hanukkah story).

Some of the best-known and best-loved recent Hanukkah songs include:

  • The Dreidel Song (also called "I Have a Little Dreidel"), written in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. The song is sometimes sung in Yiddish with the title "Ikh Bin A Kleyner Dreydl."
  • "Oh Hanukkah, " or "The Latke Song," also known in Yiddish as "Chanike Oy Chanike," is another American tune. It was written by Mordkhe Rivesman around the start of the 20th century.
  • "Sevivon" is a Hebrew song; its title translates as "dreidel." Not as popular in the United States, it is well-loved in Israel.

Food

The central miracle in the Hanukkah story is that of the Hanukkah oil, which miraculously lasted for eight days when it should only have lasted one. As a result, foods fried in oil have become traditional fare on Hanukkah, with latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly-filled donuts) being the most common foods.Dairy-based foods are also served in honor of Judith, a biblical heroine, who served cheese-based cakes. In addition to these, other popular Hanukkah foods include:

  • Loukoumades (deep-fried puffs dipped in honey or sugar)
  • Hamantaschen (jam-filled cookies)
  • Challah (braided egg-bread)
  • Gefilte fish (minced whitefish shaped into an oval)
  • Brisket (a cut of beef)
  • Tsimmis (stewed, sweetened vegetables)
  • Kugel (savory or sweet side dish made with noodles or potato)

Gifts

Gifts were not a traditional part of the Hanukkah celebration until the late 1800's. It was then that Christmas gift-giving became a major part of European and American culture, and Jews followed suit by adding gifts to the Hanukkah experience.

Each family has their own gift-giving tradition. While some give a number of gifts each night, many choose a slightly different approach:

  • Many families give Hanukkah gelt on the first day of Hanukkah. Gelt is foil-wrapped chocolate money which often comes in a gold-colored mesh bag. Gelt is an important element of the dreidel game, so some families give dreidels (special spinning tops) on the first day as well.
  • Some families give money rather than gifts for Hanukkah. When this is the case, children may be expected to give a portion of their Hanukkah money to charity.
  • Many families give small gifts on each of the first seven nights of Hanukkah, with a single large gift given on the last day of the holiday.

Games

There is really only one traditional Hannukah game: the dreidel game. To play the dreidel game, all you need is a dreidel and some gelt. A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side; gelt refers to chocolate coins wrapped in either gold or silver foil. Children of all ages can enjoy playing this game—even the youngest baby will enjoy watching the dreidel as it spins on its axis, while older children will enjoy winning chocolate coins. 

In addition to playing the dreidel spinning game, you can also organize a dreidel "spin-off." In order to play this game, give each person their own dreidel (nothing fancy, small plastic dreidels will do), then have them compete against each other to see who can spin their dreidel the longest.

For a fun variation, have kids make their own dreidels out of clay. Be sure to sing  "I Have a Little Dreidel" if you do this one!

Read Hanukkah Books Together

There is no traditional Hanukkah book that is typically read by the whole family. The original story is told in the biblical Apocrypha (meaning “hidden things”) in I & II Maccabees (1 Macc 4:36-59; 2 Macc 10:1-8). The Apocrypha are not light reading, though the stories may be intriguing to adults.

There are, however, numerous children's books about Hanukkah which explain the holiday and its traditions. These help young people to understand the history of the holiday, the story of the Maccabees, and the reason they eat certain foods and say certain prayers during the Festival of Light.

Reading books together is a wonderful holiday activity. You can read one Hanukkah book each night of the holiday, or designate one night of Hanukkah as the "book reading" night. However you go about it, choose colorful books with lively text and make the experience something special for your family. Serve hot chocolate, cuddle beneath warm blankets and make an effort to demonstrate how much you love one another. Adult readers can have fun with dramatic voices, while older children can take a turn at being the reader.