December is my favorite time of year. We are a culturally interreligious family, so the whole month often seems like one big holiday. My husband’s family celebrates Chanukah, while my family celebrates Christmas. Our family attends a local Reform Jewish synagogue, so my experience with the festival of Chanukah is slightly different from a Conservative or Orthodox Jew’s experience. All the same, it’s a beautiful holiday and I love sharing it with my family.
The very short version of the Chanukah story is that some brave Jews fought the Greek-Syrian army and saved the great temple from the invaders who wouldn’t let them practice their faith. When the Jews retook their decimated temple, they tried to relight the eternal flame, but could only find oil for one night. It would take them longer than that to reconsecrate more oil, but they used the oil they found anyway. Instead of only lasting one night, the oil miraculously lasted for eight nights, time enough for more oil to be consecrated. To this day, Jews celebrate that miracle by lighting the Chanukiah (the Chanukah menorah) and eating foods fried in oil.
For a detailed account of the story of Chanukah, this entry from Chabad.org is a good resource:
This very brief video is an appropriate version of the story for young children:
Like many Jewish holidays, Chanukah is a time to spend with family, playing games and eating delicious food. Some families exchange gifts on Chanukah, or give small gifts only to their children. Some families have parties or attend a public lighting of a giant menorah.
The dreidel game is one of our favorite pastimes during Chanukah, but no one seems to know exactly how spinning the dreidel became a Chanukah tradition. One suggestion has been that during the time before the Maccabees fought the Greeks, the Jews tried to hide the fact that they were having religious celebrations from their oppressors, and pulled out the dreidels to make it seem like they were just getting together to do some betting. Whatever the reason, my kids really enjoy wagering their chocolate gelt (money) on the game. There are four sides to a dreidel, and each side is marked with a different Hebrew letter. The letters stand for the words, “A miracle happened there.” In Israel, there is one different letter on dreidels, so that the letters stand for, “A miracle happened here.”
For instructions on how to play the dreidel game, check out this video.
(Hint: We give everybody only 4 pieces of gelt, otherwise the game can last a really long time!)
Another activity that my kids enjoyed, especially when they were younger, was reading stories about Chanukah. There are many, many from which to choose, but one that makes me cry every single time I read it is The Tree of the Dancing Goats by Patricia Polacco. It’s a crossover Christmas/Chanukah story that will warm the cockles of your heart.
At our temple, Chanukah is very fun. On one of the eight nights that falls on Shabbat (or Friday evening), there is a special service geared toward the children. After the service, latkes and sufganiyot (fried jelly-filled donuts) are served in the social hall. Dreidels and chocolate coins are distributed to everyone and people play with each other and eat their fill. Then, a magician performs a spellbinding show that never ceases to impress the kids and adults alike.
Because of Kosher laws, meat cannot be eaten with dairy, so often Chanukah is a time for a dairy menu. Although, our immediate family doesn’t keep kosher, extended family does, so if we attend a gathering at someone’s home during Chanukah, the menu is often meatless. I do enjoy sour cream with my latkes!
My absolute favorite part of Chanukah is the music. The traditional blessing over the candles has a different melody and different words during Chanukah. Here is a lovely video in which a rabbi demonstrates the singing of the blessings.
There are also plenty of other Chanukah songs. This lovely gem of a video is a montage of some of the classics:
Last, but certainly not least, is the lighting of the menorah itself. This holiday is all about the oil, and all about the lights. Menorahs come in so many different shapes and sizes, colors and designs. Some families have a different menorah for each family member. We have two- a very elegant and traditional menorah, which takes center place on our dining table every year, and a more whimsical menorah that makes me happy when I look at it. Do a Google Images search for Chanukiah and scroll down to see the variety of beautiful Chanukah menorahs. The candles themselves can often be very beautiful. If you didn’t watch the video about the Chanukah blessings, you might not know that the candles go in a certain order, and they are lit from left to right. There is always a 9th candle in a Chanukiah, and its spot is higher on the menorah. This candle is called the shamash and is used to light the other candles. Here is a demonstration of how to light the menorah.
Chanukah Sameach or Happy Chanukah!
Lynne–Lynne has enjoyed homeschooling her two sons for the past 4.5 years, after their brief stint in the local public school. Her older son is a humorous fellow with high functioning autism who thrives in a home education environment. Her younger son is a sensitive soul with a great deal of patience. The boys, Mom, and Dad, along with the two guinea pigs, live in Northeast Ohio. Lynne holds a Master’s Degree in French Language and Literature. She is also a Harry Potter fanatic, enjoys line dancing and Zumba, spends hours scrapbooking, and loves organic vegetables. You can visit her soon-to-be revitalized blog at www.daysofwonderhomeschool.blogspot.com.