Making Hanukkah Meaningful for Your Kids

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My family and I find December to be a challenging time of year. We celebrate Hanukkah, a minor 8-day Jewish holiday that celebrates our survival over assimilation to the Syrian-Greeks. We’re here because throughout history our people have fought to retain our unique identity and culture in spite of the larger cultures around us, and Hanukkah celebrates one of those times.

Hanukkah falls in December or early January (the date is based on the Hebrew calendar), making it a weak competitor to the overwhelming presence of Christmas.  Making Hanukkah meaningful for my kids falls to me.

My kids see almost everyone around us shopping for massive quantities of gifts, lighting trees, playing Christmas music, and decorating. I have to provide significance for Hanukkah, a tiny holiday, while explaining why we are different and don’t do Christmas things.  It’s hard for anyone, but especially children, to feel “othered” constantly, but I feel it is critical to explain to them why we follow our own Jewish culture and traditions.

Over time I have come up with a general approach that seems to work for us. My approach, plus recipes and more, illustrate how I make Hanukkah meaningful for my kids, even when we are surrounded by Christmas.

Lit Menorah
A menorah burning down on the first night of Hanukkah.  Menorahs come in all sizes and shapes, but all have 8 holders for the 8 days of Hanukkah plus an extra helper candle called the shamas.  The shamas is lit first, and then it is used to light all the subsequent candles for the day.  Photo Credit: Aimee Hutton

But first, some back story on Hanukkah

The story of Hanukkah, חֲנֻכָּה, is that the Syrian-Greeks took over the Temple in Jerusalem in 168 B.C.E., denied Jews the ability to use the Temple to pray, and forced them to drop their cultural practices and be like the often naked Greeks. Up until this point, most of the minorities including the Jews had been given political and religious autonomy. This loss of autonomy was unwelcome to Jews and caused a major conflict. The Jews rebelled, and through a long series of battles, were able to overthrow the Syrian-Greek government and regain religious autonomy, including getting the Temple back. According to legend when they reclaimed the Temple, there was only enough oil for the ceremonial lamp to be lit for one day (supply chain issues), but it miraculously lasted 8 days.

Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting candles (or oil) in a menorah, singing traditional Hanukkah folk songs, playing with the dreidel (a 4-sided top), and eating fried foods. The menorah is a candelabra with 8 holders for the main candles and one more spot for a helper candle (called the shamash or shamas). We eat potato latkes (with or without apple sauce) and sufganiyot, a jelly-filled doughnut. Gift-giving is NOT part of the holiday! Traditionally a coin or two (called gelt in Yiddish) would be given to children. Nowadays, we eat chocolate coins, also called gelt. Most families in the US choose to give small gifts to children on Hanukkah. This is not a Hanukkah tradition, but rather an Americanization so we don’t feel we’re traumatizing our children by letting them feel left out during the Christmas gift-giving frenzy.

Plate of Latkes
A warm plate of potato latkes is often served with apple sauce, sour cream, or ketchup. I barely remembered to take a photo of these before they were eaten. Photo credit: Deborah Sigel

My latke recipe is non-dairy and can easily be made gluten-free. I no longer pan fry (it makes the house smell terrible), and instead “oven fry” them.

Handwritten latke recipe

I’m just like you, but with slightly different holidays

I am an ordinary American. I look like everyone else (just slightly shorter) and dress like everyone else (just nerdier). I work, and I have kids. I grew up in a small town in New York’s Northcountry, went to public school, and know Christmas songs as well as everyone else.  I’ve made my share of Christmas ornaments (angels for all the other kids, ballerinas for me). I love a good Christmas party–my favorite being my woodturning club’s party which was full of cookies, fudge, cake, and a used tool auction.

I also happen to be Jewish, and at about an average level of religious observance. I keep kosher at home, occasionally go to synagogue, and celebrate the Jewish holidays at home with my kids. I live in Vermont, which, similar to where I grew up, is not in a heavily Jewish area.

I have my own Jewish heritage, traditions, holidays, and beliefs that are different from my non-Jewish neighbors.

I respect their beliefs but follow my own. Jews believe in never imposing our beliefs on those who are not Jewish (this fact makes it very challenging for a non-Jew to choose to become Jewish, and makes Christian proselytization to Jews offensive).

Pile of Dreidels
Dreidels are a 4-sided top with the letters Nun, Gimel, Hey, and Shin on it, spelling a Hebrew phrase “nase gadol haya sham” which means “A great miracle happened there.” The dreidel game uses the dreidel like dice to win tokens, coins, or gelt. It was developed as a means to cover up Jewish study at times when it was illegal. Photo Credit: Deborah Sigel

Because there are so few Jews, and because we have historically experienced vast destruction from persecution and assimilation, we are very sensitive to preserving what we have left. Christmas, especially the overwhelming Christmas shopping season, becomes a pain point in that preservation.

Although many Americans who don’t consider themselves to be religious or Christian celebrate aspects of Christmas, for most Jews, this is asking us to take a step too far into assimilation. And with Hanukkah being a holiday celebrating when Jews did not assimilate, it feels especially pertinent to focus on Hanukkah instead of engaging in Christmas traditions. 

According to my daughter, who is 10, these are the most challenging aspects of not celebrating Christmas:

  • The other kids talk about all the presents they got. They get tons (36 each, she says), and they’re really expensive. (This is concerning to me because of what it says about the projection of affluence contrasted with the reality of large economic disparities in our community.)
  • Not being able to escape Christmas songs.
  • The assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas. She feels unable to be part of the conversation, which is frustrating and annoying.

It’s hard to explain what it’s like to be surrounded by Christmas, but not be a part of it

For most Americans, Christmas is a full dive into music, decorations, shopping, cooking, Santa, and whatever the Elf on the Shelf is about. The channels I follow online have shifted from complexities of women working in STEM to what stocking stuffers to buy their kids, favorite Christmas movies, and best holiday music album. Everyone around me seems so excited about Christmas. For the most part, I politely wait out the conversation, and just watch from afar. It’s not for me, and it’s not for me to reduce their joy. Much like attending someone’s birthday party, I can enjoy what they do, without it being my birthday.

Apart from preserving Jewish traditions, another challenge comes with situations where inclusion in the “holiday season” falls flat:

  • Why is a “Christmas Tree” called a “holiday tree” if it’s a thing used only on Christmas?
  • School has asked us to sell poinsettias that will look good “on our holiday table”, an item that clearly is not intended for me. Poinsettias are a Christmas decoration.
  • The Scholastic catalog is selling a pile of Christmas-themed books with our favorite book characters that I have to routinely hide from my kids or explain that it’s not for us.  Because I know my kids will be continuously exposed to Christmas and absorb it through osmosis, we don’t go out of our way to buy Christmas-themed items.
  • When I was in high school, I was asked to sell smoked ham and turkeys for a school fundraiser, even though I could not eat or bring either into my home.
  • Supermarkets play Christmas music on the speakers, and there’s no reasonable way to avoid hearing it.

As I change the channel on the car radio away from Christmas music, I remember that some of the catchy older Christmas songs were written by Jews.  And that my own grandfather used to decorate one of the windows of his store with a Christmas display. “Why?” my mother would ask him. His reply, “Because business is business.”

Gelt
Gelt, or chocolate coins, are a popular treat for Hanukkah. They come in both milk chocolate and parve (non-dairy) dark chocolate. Photo Credit: Deborah Sigel

Finding Your Own Path to Making Hanukkah Meaningful for Your Kids

So, how do you participate in American culture during the Christmas shopping season, while also finding space to practice your own minority religion?

Judaism is all about choosing your own path. We like to say “two Jews, three opinions”. As a result, there are lots of solutions that Jewish families go with. None are more or less correct than any other.  For this reason, you’ll see a range of traditions ranging from only celebrating Hanukkah to celebrating a mix of both Hanukkah with Christmas.  You can sometimes even catch a car menorah on the road.

I land firmly on the Hanukkah-only side of things (but still respect my friends who choose to include Christmas as well). Here’s generally what I do to make Hanukkah meaningful for my kids:

I explain the importance of being unique.

I spend the time before and during the Christmas shopping season discussing with my kids the difference between our traditions, and how they shape our observances. This is a nice way of explaining that we won’t be buying Christmas stuff, there will be Christmas music everywhere, your friends will be doing stuff that’s different, and why we will be saying “No” to a lot of the items other people buy this season BEFORE the questions come.

I light the menorah every evening near sunset (which is 4:45 PM-ish at this latitude) during Hanukkah with my kids.

We sing the blessings, and maybe even a Hanukkah song we remember from preschool.  Helpful hint for Vermonters: check the back of your local country store… at least that’s where the Shelburne Country Store hides their Hanukkah supplies.

Menorahs
Menorahs don’t have to be boring. I make my own quirky Hanukkah menorahs, with robots, and sea monsters.  Photo Credit:  Deborah Sigel

Pause for a game.

During the 10 minutes that the candles are lit, I pause all distractions, and focus on doing something fun with the family, like board games. This is something I learned in college and love. It’s a nice break. If you do gifts, do them after candles so it doesn’t become gimmee-gimmee time.

Special foods.

For a few of the days, I make or serve special foods, like lakes, sufganiyot, and once, there was a failed attempt to make dosas. (You can buy frozen latkes or even tater tots in a pinch). Every day I give my kids some gelt, chocolate coins. One year, my husband misunderstood a shopping request for “a few bags, if they’re on sale” and bought 20 bags of gelt from Trader Joes.

Sufganiyot
Sufganiyot, jelly-filled doughnuts for Hanukkah.  Because of kosher rules, these are often donuts that are parve (non-dairy). Photo credit: Aimee Hutton

Attend or host a local Hanukkah event.

Many synagogues hold parties (food, carnival activities, songs, dreidel, and raffles). These are an awesome way to eat latkes without making your house smell like oil. Chabad hosts giant outdoor menorah lighting events across our area (and they bring free sufganiyot!) Check out the Jewish Communities of Vermont and Chabad of Vermont for listings of Hanukkah events across the state.

Tiny gifts.

I follow the tradition I grew up with of giving a single small gift to each of the kids each night. We receive packages from grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and ideally, get enough to open one per night. If not, I buy a few extra things. I typically aim for under $20-40 for a gift, as part of fighting affluent gift-giving, and focusing on the rest of Hanukkah. I let my older kid pick out her gifts using the provided budget (partially to force her to do the math). For her younger sibling, who was 3 last year, I pick out inexpensive gifts he’ll actually like and use, like 3M blue masking tape of his very own to use anywhere he likes, a ball of yarn of his very own, fort building giant Tinker Toys, and a Lego vacuum cleaner.  I don’t turn down more expensive gifts from family members, but I try to encourage them to think less fancy and more practical. If my kids want to get me something I tell them to find something I haven’t used often and wrap it as a gift to me. It’s fun to discover a lost treasure. “Wow, an airbrush? I didn’t know I had that.” Where possible I try to defocus on the gift by doing a family activity, but it’s hard finding time to do that when the usual school and after-school activities are happening too.

Videos.

We watch a good Hanukkah movie. HA! Just kidding. There really aren’t any. Instead, I like to watch an episode of Yid Life Crisis, especially their “The YidLife Crisis Guide to the Holiday Classics” episode.  Most of their content is hilarious and partially in Yiddish, but isn’t kid-friendly. We’ll let the kids watch YouTube videos of music parodies from the Maccabeats.

And this is how we build a little bubble for Hanukkah. Before the pandemic, we invited our Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors to celebrate with us. Making Hanukkah meaningful for my kids is fun and fulfilling, and hopefully something they’ll pass along to their kids.

Dreidel Pops
Dreidel pops made from marshmallows, pretzels, Hershey’s Kisses, and frosting can be an easy and fun project with kids. Photo Credit: Aimee Hutton

I wish you all a happy holiday, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, a nice break, or whatever you enjoy this season. If you’re celebrating Hanukkah this year, I hope you find time to experiment and make Hanukkah meaningful for your kids in your own way.

 

 

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Deb is a mechanical engineering consultant, STEM educator, artist, and parent in the Burlington area. She is also the co-owner of the Vermont Idea Company. Deb has designed parts of Mars Rovers, astronaut tools, underwater robots, and eye implants that enable the blind to see. She has years of experience teaching fun hands-on STEM workshops and camps focusing on fundamentals of engineering (often by destroying things) and empowering kids to build their own giant creative things with tools. She currently teaches Arduino and Space Design courses to high school students at the Governor's Institute of Vermont. As an artist, she loves learning new ways to make things and integrating those new skills into her art. She dabbles in illustration, woodworking, silversmithing, sculpture, fabric, food, and more. In her free time, you can find her picking blueberries, inventing a new toy (like an interactive phone switchboard for her preschooler), or making kreplach and challah with her kids.

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