Chanukah 2021 is here (AKA: Our second COVID Chanukah)! At least this time we can actually have socially supported gatherings. Phew.
I don’t know about you, but I am really looking forward to adding more light into this world during my sixth Vermont family Chanukah. I’m excited to watch the candles dance and glow while my family dances and glows right beside them. Because that’s the point of Chanukah. The candles, the menorah, celebrating the miracle, teaching our kids about the miracle, and making it relevant for the here and now.
You see, many people like to clump Chanukah together with all of the other winter holidays (does Merry Chrismakwanzakah sound familiar?) There is literally nothing similar between Chanukah and any other winter holiday other than they all occur when it’s cold outside. I can’t even say they all occur in the winter because sometimes, like this year, Chanukah occurs in the fall.
So what is Chanukah really?
The ancient Greeks tried to force the Jews to accept their religion and culture, instead of following the Torah’s commandments (a Jew’s lifeline to G-d). A small and poorly-armed faction of Jews led by Judah the Macabee, fought back and ultimately defeated the mighty Greek army, drove the Greeks from Israel, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and reinstated the Temple services to G-d.
When they went to relight the Temple’s Menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum lit daily in the Holy Temple) they found only a single jug of olive oil that had not been destroyed or defiled by the Greek army. This one-day supply of oil miraculously kept the Temple’s Menorah lit for eight days until new oil could be prepared.
To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah where we light the Menorah for 8 days to commemorate the eight days the single-day supply of oil burned for (our menorah, also called a Chanukkiah, has two extra branches than the menorah has in the Holy Temple).
In Judaism, it’s taught that everything that happened in the past continues to have a lesson today, and the energy of every original holiday (such as when Chanukah first occurred) is connected to today. Stories aren’t just “stories.” They contain valuable and relevant lessons for the here and now.
Here are some lessons I find meaningful from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson:
- Never be afraid to stand up for what’s right. Judah Maccabee and his small army were significantly outnumbered and their weapons were weaker, but that didn’t stop them from defending their land and their people. With complete trust in G-d, they prayed and went into what could have been a fatal battle —and won. In each of our lives, we can do what we know is right, even if it’s hard, in the same way.
- Do more good deeds and connect more to G-d by following his commandments, every single day. One flame was good enough for yesterday, but today there needs to be more, and tomorrow even more than that.
- A little light can dispel a lot of darkness. The Chanukah candles are lit when it’s dark outside. Lit in doorways or windows, they shine outwards to the darkness of the world. No matter how dark the world may seem, a flame of G-dly goodness can transform the darkness itself into light.
- Spread the light. Chanukah is different from other holidays since it’s primarily meant to be publicized. It’s not enough to be a Jew at heart, or even at home. Chanukah teaches us to shine our own light out into the world by doing mitzvahs (Torah commandments) and performing acts of kindness.
- Be proud of who you are. Be like a menorah, boldly shining for all to see.
To read more, check out chabad.org.
As far as gifts go, Jews didn’t start giving gifts during Chanukah until they wanted to fit in more with their non-Jewish surroundings. Traditionally, money (also called gelt) is given to kids each night (coins or a dollar or so, not typically a large amount of money) to reward them for doing mitzvahs and to teach them the importance of tzedakah, or charity.
My kids receive the monetary amount of candles being lit each night. On the 5th night, we give them a little extra since this is the night where more Chanukah candles are lit than those that remain empty, thereby being the first night where the light overcomes the darkness.
What Does My Family Do During our little Vermont family Chanukah
Each night of Chanukah, as soon as it’s dark outside (each day in the Hebrew calendar begins at night), my family gathers around a table full of beautiful and vibrant menorahs (one for each person), some bought from a store and some made as fun projects by our kids. We light the menorahs in descending order of age, beginning with my husband. Blessings are sung while we light the candles, and when all of the menorahs are lit, we sing and dance to the traditional song sung after the lighting of the menorah (we sing Haneirot Halalu, though others sing Maoz Tzur).
We like to get pretty wild, so we make sure to add fast-paced songs with happy and inspirational melodies to the traditional mix. After we are finished singing and dancing, we give our kids gelt, sit down to eat dinner next to the dancing flames of the menorahs, and will often make fresh latkes (potato pancakes) for all to enjoy (we go crazy with these, too, adding all kinds of root veggies and even kale to them. Kale, because we are Vermonters, after all).
Throughout all of Chanukah, there are always lots of chocolate gelt and dreidels laying around, so the dreidel game is played sometimes all day, every day (kids….). Since my husband and I are also the ones to create and organize the lighting of the big Menorahs in Middlebury, Bristol, and Vergennes, my kids also love to be a part of those celebrations as well.
My kids, like probably all other Jewish children, love Chanukah. They love lighting the menorah. They love singing and dancing as a family around the menorah. They love the traditional sufganiyot, jelly-filled donuts (I prefer custard, but hey, they have their preferences, too). They love making and eating latkes. They love the dreidels and the gelt (mostly the chocolate edible kind since my kids are too young to appreciate real money). They love being present for the lighting of the big menorah in our town and watching others come to appreciate it as well.
For them, our sweet Vermont family Chanukah isn’t about the presents. It’s about the meaning. And joy. It’s about spreading the light and G-d’s miracles and recognizing that even though this happened long ago, the miracle is still present for us today and G-d is still with us.
These are the lessons I want to impart on my kids during this and every Chanukah season. I want them to know the importance of their history and how it is relevant and meaningful to them today. I want them to find meaning and happiness in the flickering candles and the family traditions.
I want my family to gather with others and celebrate together with public menorah lightings and grand menorahs. With Chanukah parties in their community.
I don’t want my kids to think this holiday is all about gifts. Because giving and receiving presents is not what Chanukah is about.