Hanukkah feels like the most family-focused of Jewish holidays I celebrate. So, despite technically being a “minor” holiday (unmentioned in the Torah), it’s highly anticipated. For one of our eight yearly nights of Hanukkah, my paternal grandparents host my father’s side of the family. A table of Hanukkah foods awaits. Holiday activities spur conversation, and more than Pesach, or Rosh Hashanah, the point is being together, talking a lot and leaving with something. However, considering Hanukkah’s length, most nights aren’t get-togethers. I remember the other nights allowing more space to consider the holiday’s basic elements.
At my grandparents’, food is eaten, and gamified, immediately. This is with the dreidel, a top with a Hebrew letter on each side, and gelt, foil-wrapped chocolate coins. The game’s rules are simple, though may vary depending on who you ask.
Each player gets 10 gelt, and contributes one to a pool in the middle. Going forward, when the pool reaches one or zero pieces, everybody pitches in one. Players then take turns spinning the dreidel. If the letter gimel comes up after spinning, you take the pool. For letter hei, you take half the pool. If an odd number of gelt is in the pool for hei, round up to the nearest whole number. For the letter nun, nothing happens. For letter shin, you lose a coin to the pool. The winner is the last player left with gelt. When playing with children, of course give them some anyway.
This game is roughly 200 years old, though began in some form in the 16th century as “totum.” Before Jewish adaptation it was an English and Irish Christmas game. And for a 2,000-year-old holiday, Hanukkah still gives a good amount of attention to novelty. My family might spin a crafted silver dreidel that seems like it’s been used for generations, or a bright plastic toy out of a 25-pack. When I consulted my parents, they also remarked that the gelt we use mimics U.S. coinage. The biggest piece is a chocolate Kennedy half dollar. “He was a nice Jewish man,” offered my mother.
Hanukkah offers many more salty-sweet foods, like matzo ball soup with vegetables in a chicken broth. Challah looks excellent and is. Latkes are best with applesauce.
Hanukkah gifts, though a highlight for many, have only been a tradition for about 150 years. My family gives larger gifts on night one, or when everyone gathers.
But aside from gifts, games and food is Hanukkah’s historical justification. Like multiple Jewish holidays, it commemorates persecution and perseverance. As the story goes, the Jewish Maccabees freed Judea from Syrian-Greek occupiers in the second century BCE. As the Maccabees reclaimed Jerusalem and their temple, they had to build a new menorah, which is a branched candelabrum used in Jewish rituals. Just a day’s worth of oil was available, but they were able to light the menorah for eight days. Hence Hanukkah’s eight nights.
On each of the eight nights, we light a corresponding amount of candles in the menorah, along with the shamash (“attendant”) candle. The shamash is lit first, and is used to light the others in order. Blessings accompany the lighting, with an additional prayer on night one. Those new to the holiday can do their best to sing along.
When it’s just my nuclear family, on most nights of Hanukkah, I remember the menorah receiving a different kind of attention. Gifts given then are littler things that my parents saw; candy, or something they thought would entertain us. And I would thank them earnestly for these gifts, then quickly eat or Mad Libs them. But I remember on those nights focusing more on the menorah, for us a multigenerational object, and the several years of rainbow wax accumulated on it. The menorah is, of course, the holiday’s symbol, despite enjoyment of gifts or food. Its candles are not to be put out, but are to burn out on their own. It is a literally slow-burning reminder of a moment successfully passed down within the family.
Though Hanukkah is this article’s focus, it is worth noting that I celebrate Christmas with my mother’s side in Miami. Her late mother was Jewish as well. Sometimes, Hanukkah, operating on the Jewish lunar calendar, shifts within the Gregorian calendar and falls near Christmas.
In how I celebrate both holidays, there are key similarities — excitement, gifts, candy, and a tree-like icon. Hanukkah may be lacking in TV specials.
As much as I remember celebrations with my father’s side, I recall my maternal grandmother lighting her menorah just as well. When she clicked a lighter and led the blessings, I saw her sealing in wax her 80th-plus Hanukkah.