Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights celebrated each winter by Jewish people worldwide, begins at sundown on Nov. 28 this year, and I cannot wait. I love Hanukkah songs, the chocolate coins, the warm flickering flames of the candles in the menorah, and the time spent gathering close to family and friends. Besides that, it’s an eight-day holiday that involves jelly donuts! What’s not to love? Delicious fried food aside, there is so much to embrace about the spirit of this beautiful holiday. Hanukkah is truly an exciting and inspiring celebration, and Hanukkah traditions bring meaning and significance into the darkest, coldest time of year. After the last few years, we can surely all use a little extra warmth and love this holiday season.
Even if your family doesn’t observe Hanukkah, sharing about this festival of lights with your children is a wonderful way to teach kids about resonant themes associated with Hanukkah, such as liberation from oppression and the freedom of religious expression.
Here are some of my favorite Hanukkah traditions and the deeper meaning you can find in them.
Reasons to Embrace Hanukkah Traditions
1. Hanukkah shows us that miracles can happen.
At its most basic, Hanukkah is the commemoration of a small but significant miracle in Jewish history. After the Greek armies captured and claimed the Temple of Jerusalem, Jewish soldiers (the Maccabees) finally defeated their enemies. They reclaimed the Temple and dedicated it back to its original purpose, but they found only enough oil to light their sacred menorah for one night. They sent someone to get more oil, but it would take eight full days for him to make the trip to secure a new supply. Somehow, the tiny amount of oil that they had burned bright and lasted a full eight days. Hanukkah teaches me to look for the myriad tiny miracles like this in my everyday life. I may not be fighting a real army, but we all wage our fair share of metaphorical battles, and we must remember to celebrate and recognize each small victory we achieve.
2. It’s a celebration of grease!
In remembrance of the oil in the Temple that lasted for eight days, we eat foods during Hanukkah cooked in oil — and I mean, nothing is more delicious than deep-fried everything. This is a time to delight in the abundance of oil, knowing that we have enough and that we can trust that our needs will be provided for. To me, Hanukkah is all about gratitude for the small things (like oil!) and having faith that when times are lean, everything will be OK. It’s also about giving myself permission to indulge. A little decadence is fine, and Hanukkah food is worth it. I can’t think of anything yummier than crispy on the outside, velvety on the inside potato pancakes topped with both sour cream and apple sauce. Or when it’s freezing outside, how about a bowl of hearty matzah ball soup? Then, I have to make sure to save room for my favorite Hanukkah dessert: sufganiyot, with their sweet, oily dough, stuffed to overflowing with sticky raspberry jam and rolled in powdered sugar.
3. At the darkest time of the year, Hanukkah brings light into our lives.
It is a symbol of hope and shows us that when life seems bleak and cold — when we feel lost and alone — there is still warmth in the world. Traditionally, once lit, menorahs are placed in windows, specifically so that passersby can enjoy them. I’ve always loved this gesture of reaching out to the world beyond the walls of our homes. To me, it means connection and generosity of spirit. We share our light with others, often total strangers, as a beacon of hope, grace, and beauty. The ritual of lighting the candles each evening is particularly significant to me as well. We first light a “helper candle” with a match and then use that candle to light the others, so we see how a single tiny spark can grow and spread. When I partake in this winter rite, I realize that it is about so much more than wax and wicks. We are those candles, and the flames are our love for all of humanity and creation.
4. Each night we light the candles and let them burn all the way down so that they extinguish naturally.
There is nothing left of them in the morning, but every evening we start fresh with a set of brand new candles, repeating this process for eight lovely nights. Hanukkah reminds me that no matter what, we can always begin again. There will be pain, setbacks, mistakes. We will experience failure and loss, others will hurt us, things we love will be destroyed or taken from us. But from nothing, we can start over, and we can keep starting over throughout our lives.
5. During Hanukkah, I get to be with loved ones every night.
After a long day at work, I usually come home, rush through dinner, stress about homework, agonize over my to-do list for the next day, and struggle through our family’s bedtime routine. Hanukkah forces me to get off of that hamster wheel of anxiety that is being a modern parent. We gather in quiet reverence as we complete a sacred ritual that bonds us to one another, to our past, and to a large, complex, and ancient culture. It is calming and meditative, and it shows me that it is vital to stop, breathe, and remember what I really care about — not my to-do list, but the people and memories I cherish.
6. Hanukkah isn’t really about presents, so it’s a respite from commercialism.
Some families enjoy gift-giving and have incorporated this tradition into their Hanukkah celebrations, which is totally great. For most Jewish families around the world, however, presents aren’t a big part of their observation. In my family and friend circle, we might exchange small tokens of appreciation like food or something we made, but other than that, there is no pressure to shop. For me, the best gift that I receive during Hanukkah is presence. I am with my friends and family, and I am reminded to be intentional, enjoying the delights of the moment.
7. The word “Hanukkah” literally means dedication.
In context, it means the dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem back to the Jewish people. However, the word “dedication” has several definitions. I see this as an opportunity for personal reflection. Each Hanukkah, I ask myself some important questions as I approach the New Year. How can I dedicate myself even more significantly to the people and things that I love? How am I mindfully and meaningfully spending my time and resources? Am I truly committed to my values, ideals, and culture, and how might I do better?
8. The holiday lasts for eight nights.
But this is more than enjoying eight nights of festivities. In Judaism, the number eight represents going above and beyond what’s naturally or logically expected. The Maccabees exceeded expected levels of bravery as they defeated the Greek army, and they mustered faith and commitment waiting for the oil in the Temple. They did not give up. The spirit of Hanukkah is that we must always draw on our reserves of inner strength in times of need or hardship — and that we must have faith in miracles and in ourselves as miracles even when it seems pointless or absurd to do so.
Other Things to Know About Hanukkah Traditions
Now that you understand how meaningful and impactful Hanukkah traditions are, you may want to explore this holiday even more. Here are a few other things to know about rites observed during Hanukkah.
Traditional Hanukkah Foods
In case you didn’t pick up on it, I could wax poetic about latkes and sufganiyot all day long. There’s more where that came from, though! Other Hanukkah menu items include:
- Beef brisket
- Kugel (a traditional Jewish egg noodle casserole)
- Hanukkah gelt (a chocolate coin covered in gold foil)
- Matzah ball soup
- Rugelach (a pastry, traditionally in the form of a crescent, rolled with sweet fillings)
- Challah (a braided bread)
- Knish (a dumpling of dough stuffed with a filling and baked or fried)
Although Hanukkah isn’t really about gifts, some families do make gift-giving part of their festivities. If you’re thinking of partaking in this tradition, heads up: You should try to steer clear of Christmas-themed colors and packaging and anything that isn’t kosher. Traditional gifts include:
- A dreidel
- Chocolate gelt
In general, sticking to the following categories of items will likely be well-received: small, thoughtful, practical, or tasty.
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