We’re covering the Hanukkah story and Hanukkah traditions: the Hanukkah menorah and candles, Hanukkah decorations and gifts, Hanukkah blessings, and 17 lessons and projects for kids to learn about the Festival of Lights. Our guest contributor also covers why her Christian family honors a Jewish holiday.
So, what exactly is Hanukkah?
What Is Hanukkah and How Is It Celebrated?
The Hanukkah Story
According to History.com:
The eight-day Jewish celebration known as Hanukkah or Chanukah commemorates the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where according to legend Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt.
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There are also other interpretations of the Hanukkah story.
Again, from History.com:
Jewish scholars have also suggested that the first Hanukkah may have been a belated celebration of Sukkot, which the Jews had not had the chance to observe during the Maccabean Revolt. One of the Jewish religion’s most important holidays, Sukkot consists of seven days of feasting, prayer and festivities.
The Hanukkah “Miracle”
The eight nights of lighting candles in a Menorah comes from something known as “The Hanukkah Miracle.”
The Hanukkah story miracle goes like this:
During the Jewish revolt of the Maccabees against the Syrians in the year 165 BC, the story goes that there was only enough oil to burn the lanterns for one night.
However, the sparse oil continued to burn for eight nights, allowing them enough time to find more oil.
This miracle inspired an eight-day celebration each year.
Hanukkah Dates 2019
Hanukkah 2019 begins on the evening of Sunday, December 22, 2019, and ends on the evening of Monday, December 30, 2019.
Are Chanukah and Hanukkah the same thing?
Both Chanukah and Hanukkah are correct. Hanukkah is the most widely used spelling in English speaking worlds, while Chanukah is the more traditional spelling for the festival.
What Happens During Hanukkah?
During Hanukkah, or The Jewish Festival of Lights, a family lights candles in a candelabra, called a hanukkiyah, on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.
Even though there are eight nights of Hanukkah, the Hanukkah candelabra actually has nine candles.
The ninth candle is called the shamash, or “helper” candle, because it is used to light the other candles.
Blessings are usually recited during the lighting of the candles each night.
The night also includes eating special foods, exchanging a gift, and also spending family time together playing games like Dreidel, a spinning top with four sides.
Does a menorah have 7 or 9 candles?
A menorah has seven candles and represents the seven-branched lamp from the Second Temple. It is the one that remained lit during the “Hanukkah Miracle” tale.
A hanukiah has nine candles and is the candelabra that is designed specifically to use for Hanukkah. One is the “helper” candle to light the other eight candles, one each night of Hanukkah.
Today, the words menorah and hanukiah are often used interchangeably to mean the candelabra that is lit during Hanukkah, with menorah being the most often used term.
What kind of food is served at Hanukkah?
Some traditional food served at Hanukkah includes:
- Sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts)
- Latkes (potato pancakes)
- Matzo ball soup
- Challah (a special braided bread made from eggs)
- Rugelach (a flaky dough pastry filled with cinnamon or chocolate)
Watch this video to help with pronunciation of Hanukkah words and definitions:
Do you give gifts for Hanukkah?
Traditionally, coins or chocolate was given to children on each night of Hanukkah.
However, many parents today give each child one small—thoughtful and personal—gift after the lighting of the Menorah.
Is Hanukkah in the Bible?
History.com states, “The story of Hanukkah does not appear in the Torah because the events that inspired the holiday occurred after it was written. It is, however, mentioned in the New Testament, in which Jesus attends a ‘Feast of Dedication.'”
The Hebrew word for “dedication” is “Hanukkah.”
Is Hanukkah like Christmas?
Similarities between Hanukkah and Christmas:
- Celebrated with lights.
- Food and feasting is included in the celebration.
- Gifts are given.
Differences between Hanukkah and Christmas:
- Christmas is a Christian religious holiday; Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights and not considered a Jewish High Holiday.
- Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ; Hanukkah celebrates rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
- Christmas is on a set date each year (December 25th) and the date of Hanukkah varies.
- Christmas is celebrated for one day; Hanukkah is celebrated for eight evenings.
- Christmas is celebrated by decorating a tree; Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting a menorah, or a special Hanukkah candelabra.
How to Play Dreidel
Dreidel (or dreidl) is a fun game that you play during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
It is a four-sided spinning top game with special characters painted on the side.
What does the dreidel mean?
The word comes from the German word drehen or “to spin.”
What are the symbols on the dreidel?
There are four Hebrew letters, one on each side of the dreidel.
- Nun, meaning nothing
- Gimmel, meaning all
- Hei, meaning half
- Shin, meaning put in
They also stand for the Hebrew phrase nes gadol hayah sham, meaning “a great miracle happened there.”
How do you play a dreidel?
- Give each player an equal number of game pieces (usually 10-15) like coins, raisins, candy pieces, or chocolate gelt.
- Each person puts one game piece in the center, which is the pot.
- The first player spins the dreidel. Depending on the character facing up, the player does one of the following:
- Nun: the player does nothing
- Gimel: the player gets everything in the pot
- Hei: the player gets half the pot
- Shin: the player adds one game piece to the pot
- Repeat the process. (If the pot is empty at any point, the players put one piece in.)
- When the player is out of pieces, they are out of the game.
- Continue play until everyone is out but one player.
Why do we play dreidel?
The legend of the dreidel says that it was a way for children to hide that they were studying the Torah, which then was a punishable offense.
Here’s what our guest contributor Lisa Farrar Wellman had to say about adding Hanukkah to her Christian family celebrations.
Why My Christian Family Celebrates Hanukkah
The most I knew about the Hanukkah story was that sometimes characters in one of my books celebrated it.
And there was this weird, little spinning toy and a big candelabrum.
It’s not that I don’t care about Jewish holidays, it’s just that we are Christians so we celebrate Christmas.
I find myself more and more just trying to get our politically-correct world to say Christmas or write it out without fear it will trigger a global meltdown.
I didn’t have time to learn about (much less teach my children) what the Jews are up to this time of year.
But wait a second…
The Savior of the World, God’s only Son, the guy who died for me?
He was Jewish and when I think about that, suddenly Hanukkah isn’t just a word on the mass-produced calendar hanging on my wall.
It’s part of my adopted heritage, it’s part of my Lord’s legacy and it’s worth learning and teaching.
Christmas is the celebration of miracles—a baby born to a virgin, the King of Kings in a feeding trough, a ridiculously bright star, angels talking to shepherds.
Well, Hanukkah is a story of miracles, too.
It’s the story of a small band of Jews fighting for their homeland, reclaiming Jerusalem and then discovering that their one-day supply of consecrated oil lasts for eight, long days.
Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, commemorates the survival of Judaism, as well.
Let’s be honest—that is a huge miracle, too.
The world is historically cruel to Abraham’s family.
These miracles are worth celebrating and exploring.
Celebrating Hanukkah for the First Time
You can buy a menorah just about anywhere—local and online stores, thrift stores, or you can make one with eight single candlesticks.
If you have very young children and don’t want to use actual fire, construction paper cutouts of candles work, as well. Hang them up one at a time for eight nights in a row allowing each child the honor of hanging a candle.
We live in a big city so we often see menorahs glimmering in front of buildings or in windows.
Do a quick internet search and show your kiddos what menorahs look like.
Just familiarizing yourselves with the most recognizable Hanukkah symbol will help your kids see the holiday as part of their world and may draw their interest, as well.
Hanukkah involves symbolism, special blessings and songs that most Christians simply do not know, but again, educate yourself so you can use them.
This devotional is simple, designed for Christians, and easy to incorporate into your December.
I always fall back on the trusty library for books about the holiday or you might even find a local church that’s learning about Hanukkah, too and would welcome you to join it.
Call a synagogue in your area and tell them what you’re up to!
I bet they’d love to share about their faith and their special festival with your family.
(Wouldn’t you jump at the chance to share the real meaning of Christmas with someone?)
One of my best friends celebrates Hanukkah with her family and I thought I’d share a bit of her experience with you.
At first, the kids were a bit confused, to be honest, says Blakely Bunning, mom to four.
Hanukkah is a Jewish thing, right?
And, we’re not Jewish.
Plus, we’ve never done this before and I don’t understand what this IS.
But, after the first nightly devotional, the light bulb went on.
By day eight, they were looking forward to lighting the next candle, learning what it symbolized and bridging it together with what they’ve always learned in church interactions.
It was very exciting to see.
And this year, they are already asking if we can ‘do Hanukkah again.’
A Pinterest search will bring up more Hanukkah crafts, recipes and educational materials than you could possibly imagine.
The options are endless.
But don’t get bogged down under the weight of all those choices.
Keep it simple, especially your first year.
I ask my children what about Hanukkah they want to explore and take it from there.
Maybe you’re not ready to actually celebrate Hanukkah but want to include it in a list of December holidays to study and discuss.
Do what works for your family. Try reading a Hanukkah picture book while the littles make a dreidel.
Create traditional Hanukkah goodies such as doughnuts or potato latkes.
(A holiday celebrated with fried food? Yes, please!)
Enhancing Christmas with the Hanukkah Story
Hanukkah doesn’t take away from our Christmas celebration.
It doesn’t distract us or change our focus.
In fact, one celebration points to the other and the One we celebrate at Christmas shines all the brighter and means even more because our family knows Him and His people and they are our people, too.
I want to leave you with final thoughts from my friend:
“Observing Hanukkah became important to us, as we learned more about the Jewish roots of our Christian faith. Although not technically part of the biblical holy days, we learned a great deal about our faith and our Creator through Hanukkah devotions. Hanukkah is a remembrance and celebration of miracles. Humans are a largely forgetful people, and taking deliberate time to remember the merciful goodness Our Good Father has shown us became significant. Hanukkah is just one such celebration to remember who God is, what He has done for us, and what He will do for us always.”
Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas.
17 Lessons to Help Learn Hanukkah Traditions and Understand The Hanukkah Story
Use these Hanukkah activities, projects, lessons, and crafts to learn more about the Hanukkah Story.
- History and Traditions: A Celebrate Winter Holidays Activity Lesson Plans
- Celebrate Hanukkah in Israel! lesson plan
- Read about The Maccabees: The Jewish Freedom Fighters
- Make Your Own Maccabee Shield
- How Much Oil Would You Need? lesson plan
- Learn All About Judaism
- Design your own Dreidel
- Do Hanukkah crafts
- Make Sufganiyot, or fried jelly-filled donuts
- Make a Macaroni Menorah! while discussing Hanukkah
- Create edible Dreidels
- Make an oil lantern
- Cook latkes
- Practice probability by spinning Dreidels
- Play online Hanukkah games, songs, and more for kids
- Download Hanukkah coloring sheets
- Watch Hanukkah videos
Guest contributor Lisa Farrar Wellman is a freelance writer from Austin, Texas. She writes about her family’s travel adventures at www.armedonlywiththis.com.