Celebrating Hanukkah: Eight Nights of Traditions


It’s that time of the year again! Hanukkah, Chanukah, Hannukah, or however you would like to spell it, is here. I have noticed that in recent years the excitement about this holiday has been growing exponentially even though it is actually just a very minor holiday in the Jewish religion. I assume that the reason it has become so big in Western countries is because of the prominence of Christmas. It seems like people have created their own version to not feel left out. Thus, there is a common misconception that this holiday is the Jewish Christmas. But there is no correlation between the miracle of Hanukkah and the Christmas holiday except for the fact that Chanukah mostly takes place in December. Here is some more information about the background of Hanukkah and how to celebrate it.

The Miracle of Hanukkah

Hanukkah, often referred to as the Festival of Lights, translated means dedication. This holiday commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Around 200 B.C. Israel was under the control of the Syrian king who started oppressing Jews–not allowing them to practice their religion and forcing them to worship Greek gods. His terror went so far that he ordered his soldiers to kill thousands of Jews and desecrated their temple. Until one group, often referred to as the Maccabees, had enough and revolted. They fought back and re-gained their temple. One important step of the rededication was to light a menorah; however, there was only one cruse of oil left, enough to burn for one night. Miraculously, this cruse of oil ended up lasting eight lights which is why we refer to it as the Miracle of Hanukkah.

Image: Candles lit on a Hannukah menorah

Light the Menorah

A menorah is a candelabrum with 7 candles, 3 on each side and one candle in the middle. On Hanukkah, we use a special menorah called a hanukkiah. It has nine candles in total (4 on each side and a candle called shamash in the middle. The shamash is used to light the other eight candles. You start lighting the candles from right to left. However, each night that you add a candle, you light that one first.

Lighting these eight candles commemorates the oil that was burning for eight nights. The candles of the Hanukkah menorah should all be at the same height (except for your shamash) for your hanukkiah to be considered kosher. You can make the candle lighting a fun family activity for eight nights. Obviously, be cautious with the fire if your kids are younger. For the little ones, there are plenty of creative toys out there, e.g. my son has a Hanukkah xylophone with 8 keys from when he was 6 months old. 

I Love You a Latke

You won’t have a hard time convincing your children to partake in this tradition! To commemorate the oil that was burning for eight days, we eat fried foods on Hanukkah. One must-have is latkes (potato pancakes). Some like them with apple sauce and others with sour cream but I am clearly Team Apple Sauce. Another fried favorite is donuts (sufganiyot). You can turn donut decorating into a fun activity with your kids. 

Show Me the Gelt

“Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay.” What would Hanukkah be without a fun game of dreidel? A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side. You spin the dreidel and depending on which letter stays on top, you either get the entire pot, half the pot, nothing, or you have to add coins to the pot. The coins are usually gelt which are Hanukkah chocolate coins. But the older your kids are, the more interested they might be in using actual coins.

Image: Hanukkah candles, gelt, dreidels, and sufganiyot

Non-Traditional Traditions 

In recent years, there are a few things that have become popular during Hanukkah even though there is nothing traditional about them. Going to or throwing a vodka-latke party has become a must-do thing on Hanukkah for adults only. Also, some people have started turning certain Christmas items into Hanukkah items, e.g. a Mensch on a Bench instead of the Elf on a Shelf or having a Christmas tree at home but calling it a Hanukkah bush. 

Hanukkah in Popular Culture

You will find several references about Hanukkah in popular culture. Jewish comedian Adam Sandler first released his hilarious Hanukkah Song in 2008 which is dedicated to everyone who feels “like the only kid in town without Christmas.” The song became so popular that he has made several sequels. The TV show The Goldbergs shows the overbearing Jewish mom who is frustrated about her kids not participating in Hanukkah. When seeing her neighbor’s kids being super enthusiastic about Christmas, she decides to turn Hanukkah into some sort of “super Christmas.” However, her father reminds her their ancestors have been fighting for centuries to be able to practice their religion freely and how important it is to continue their traditions. Disney has also included Hanukkah in some of their shows such as Elena of Avalor and my son’s favorite show Puppy Dog Pals

Image: A family poses for a fun Hanukkah photo

I hope you are staying healthy and safe with your family during this year’s Hanukkah. What are some of the holiday traditions your family practices? Let me know in the comments!

Our Holiday Events & Activities Guide is here and we’re especially proud to feature a Guide to Hanukkah Events in Miami! The entire Miami Mom Collective team wishes you and your family a bright and joy-filled holiday season.  

Updated December 2023