Hanukkah or Hanukah or Chanukah – however you spell it, it’s a perfect holiday for reflecting on parenting without fuss. This Jewish eight-day holiday, observed this year beginning at sundown on December 11, is ritually considered to be a minor festival.
Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas on the calendar has inflated its significance and its reputation for eight days of gifts but at heart, this is a small holiday with a big idea: that thousands of years ago a group of Jews had only enough oil to light the Temple’s Eternal Light for one day, and God made a miracle happen. The oil lasted for exactly eight days – just long enough for a fleet of messengers to travel the distance to retrieve more oil. We light candles for eight nights to commemorate the miracle of the oil, and in that spirit I offer you eight activities for an enjoyable family Hanukkah.
1. Tell the tale
Do your kids know the story of Hanukkah? Go to a library story hour or invest in a few books for your home. The story is an exciting one for kids, filled with epic battles and despair and hope and a happy ending. Hone your knowledge here, then add some great storybooks and music to your repertoire. Need suggestions? These are always myfamily’s favorites.
2. Make dinner
To remember the miracle of the oil, it’s traditional during Hanukkah to eat fried foods. Many American Jews fulfill this ritual by making latkes, or potato pancakes. Recipes are commonplace but the general idea is this: grate some potatoes and an onion. Beat an egg and add to the potato-onion mix. Add salt and pepper to taste, then form into pancakes (think hash brown patties the size of hamburgers). Fry away!
Even the smallest of children can participate by shaping the batter into patties and by adding the seasonings. For tradition’s sake, be sure to use olive oil but I like to add some canola oil to my pan, too, which will yield a less-greasy and more crispy latke, due to its higher smoke point. And I’ve never seen this in any recipe but I’ll tell you my latke secret: add a little potato (or corn) starch to your batter. Traditional toppings are sour cream or applesauce (I like to have both).
3. Make dessert
Israeli Jews remember the miracle of the oil by making sufganiyot, or jelly-filled donuts. Hooray for more fried food! Have your kids help you mix the batter, and while you should be in charge of frying, they can help with piping in the jelly filling or dusting the powdered sugar. Again, sufganiyot recipes are easy to find. Yum!
4. Attend a community candlelighting
Many Jewish communities build large outdoor menorahs to fulfill the ritual that we should light our candles where they can be seen by everybody. Instead of lighting candles in your home, gather outside to sing the ritual blessings and traditional songs in a crowd! Chabad and many Jewish Community Centers hold public candlelightings, or if those aren’t convenient to you contact your local synagogue.
5. Think of others
Reinforce the notion that Hanukkah is not primarily about receiving gifts by setting aside one night during the holiday not to open any. Instead, visit a nursing home and sing Hanukkah songs with the residents; volunteer as a family to serve dinner at a soup kitchen; or shop with your kids for toys they would enjoy, and have them deliver their purchases to a Toys for Tots collection point.
6. ‘Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay’
Carve dreidels (spinning tops marked with Hebrew letters spelling an acronym for “A great miracle happened there” – a child’s mnemonic for the meaning of the holiday) out of air-drying clay. Cut construction paper flames to hang in your windows. Popular among our synagogue’s preschool set is building a menorah out of foil-wrapped balsa wood, glue, paint and hardware store bolts and washers. Make a mess – have fun!
7. Embrace diversity and community
There is no greater time than while celebrating Hanukkah in the midst of the Christmas season to reflect on that quotation from Exodus about being a ‘stranger in a strange land.’ But there are positive lessons to being part of a minority community.
Our daughters attend a secular daycare/preschool program that is housed in the government facility where I work. Every year at the agency’s annual holiday party in the lobby Santa Claus sits under a 30-foot Christmas tree and distributes gifts to all the daycare kids. We tell our girls: “Christmas isn’t our holiday, but it is the holiday of lots of people we love, and it’s okay to help our friends celebrate their holiday.” The girls hang their glitter ornaments on the tree and receive their storybooks from Santa, knowing they’re lucky to be included in these foreign rituals. Then we go home and fry our latkes and light our Hanukkah candles, and yes, open some gifts in the familiar rhythms they recognize as theirs.
8. Appreciate the season
My birthday is December 26th, and when I was little I knew nothing about Christmas but I did have a family friend tell me that the neighborhood’s twinkly lights were illuminated in my honor. Imagine my delight! As the calendar year draws to an end school-aged children feel the lure of upcoming school breaks; radio music is upbeat; your work projects are probably slowing down; and those sparkly lights are everywhere.
Try to avoid the stresses of the season: don’t expend too much worry about securing the must-have gifts or dividing equal rations of time amongst all the branches of the family tree. Instead, take a cue from your kids, who surely have been felled by the contagious joy in the air. Whether you’re celebrating Eid-al-Adha or Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanzaa or Solstice, remember how much we all have to be grateful for: this is, after all, the season of miracles.