While the majority of us are breaking out Christmas trees and telling children that their Elf of a Shelf is watching them, there are families around the world celebrating another holiday this month. Sunset on the 24th of December starts the Hanukkah holiday this year. Growing up in a family that let me explore religion on my own, I often found myself in a temple as often as I was in a church and I have always loved the traditions (and food!) that come with the Jewish Festival of Lights.
The most recognized symbol of Hanukkah is the menorah. Holding nine candles, the menorah is a reminder of how one nights worth of oil burned for eight miraculous nights. Each night another candle is added to the menorah and lit while a prayer or blessing is said. Candles are added from right to left but the candles are lit from left to right. The first candle lit each night is the Shamash, or helper candle. This is the candle you use to light the rest of the candles. Here is the English translation of the Hebrew blessing that is said during the lighting of the candles.
While lighting the Shamash:
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.
While lighting the candles on the first night:
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season
While lighting the candles on the following nights:
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season.
Gifts and gelt and a Mench, oh my! With a holiday that spans eight nights, children who celebrate Hanukkah get to open gifts nightly to celebrate. Seeing as how even now that I’m an adult I can handle wait to open gifts on Christmas morning, I don’t know how those kids are patient enough to open only one gift at a time! Then again maybe stretching the gifts out longer makes the excitement grow!
Children also look forward to playing the dreidel game this time of year. To play the game you need a dreidel and coins, beans, candy, etc. that can be used as your game pieces. When it’s your turn, spin the dreidel once. Depending on the outcome, you give or get game pieces from the pot. Each side of the dreidel has a symbol that tells the player which action they are to take. Nun means, “nothing” so the player does nothing. Gimmel means, “everything” so the player gets everything in the pot. Hey means, “half” so the player gets half of the pot. Shin means, “put in” so the player adds a game piece to the pot. If a player finds that they have no game pieces left, they are either out of the game or can ask another player for a loan from their pot. When one person has won everything, that round of the game is over! Winners of the game often receive chocolate gelt, or coins, as their prize.
And in case you’re wondering if there is a Jewish version of the Elf on the Shelf, there actually is! Meet the Mench on a Bench. The book that accompanies the toy tells the story of the of Hanukkah for children to be able to understand easily. I love that the creator of Mench of a Bench came up with a set of activities for families to do together each night of the holiday. It keeps the traditions alive and creates a special time for parents and children to celebrate together.
Between jelly filled donuts and traditional latke there is no shortage of amazing dishes to be made at your Hanukkah celebration. My father has a recipe for amazing potato pancakes that even the most kitchen challenged cook can make. If you are planning on having company for Hanukkah dinner it may be difficult to time the cooking of latkes in order to enjoy them piping hot and fresh. It’s not exactly a dish you want to have to warm up if you can help it so it might be best to let your guests snack on them as they are finished rather than wait until dinner is served. Think of it as the perfect appetizer before a great brisket followed by jelly filled donuts.
For those interested in learning more of the traditions and history behind the holiday please check out this article about more Hanukkah traditions where I shared my dad’s great latke recipe.
Happy Hanukkah all!