With Hanukkah coming up, families have a perfect opportunity to teach kids more about the eight-day festival of lights. Jewish parents may be introducing children to their own culture’s traditions and history, while non-Jewish families can also gain a lot from teaching kids about the specifics of another culture and religion.
Whether you’re already familiar with the holiday or not, here are some ways to start talking about Hanukkah in a way that’ll be fun and interesting to kids, and that’ll lead to activities you can partake in as a family.
Did you know that Hanukkah isn’t even one of the most important holidays in the Jewish religion? Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover are much more of a big deal to Jews. But because Hanukkah happens to fall near the year-end “holiday season” that includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, this minor Jewish holiday has become more well known among non-Jews.
Hanukkah is a festival of lights to remember the Jews’ triumph over invaders who outlawed their religion, and a miraculous lamp that burned for eight nights, even though it only had enough oil for one night! This holiday is built around the story of the Maccabees, a kind of Jewish rebel army, who came back to Jerusalem after winning their revolt. They lit a holy oil lamp in the sacked Temple in Jerusalem, in order to reclaim it. To understand the history better, there’s a very simple explanation for young kids here on Sesame Street; and for older kids, a 2-minute explainer video here via Howcast.
Now the holiday commemorates this story of the miraculous lamp with candles lit for eight nights, and foods cooked in lots of oil. Traditional oil-fried foods include latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts (Sufganiyot). You can learn to make some of these foods with kids: see the instructions for simple doughnut holes and latkes via PJ Library.
It’s not really about eight nights of presents, although some families might do that. The focus of Hanukkah is the light of the menorah, which holds nine candles—one for each of the eight nights of the festival, plus the helper candle (shamash) that is used to light all of the others. While some families might give multiple gifts to their children during Hanukkah, that’s more of a response to the year-end holiday/Christmas season than it is reflective of the tradition of Hanukkah. More traditional gifts during Hanukkah include money, coins (called gelt), and chocolate coins.
Dreidel is a popular game to play during Hanukkah. The dreidel, a spinning top with four Hebrew letters on it (nun, gimel, hey, shin), is used to bet on pennies, chocolate coins, nuts, or other objects. No one is sure exactly why dreidel is played during Hanukkah, but there are lots of theories about the symbolism. Some say that the four letters stand for a Hebrew phrase that means “a great miracle occurred there.”
Start with 10-15 tokens per player. To play, each person puts a token into the middle pot, and then players take turns spinning the dreidel. There are different outcomes depending on which letter is facing up when the top falls.
- Nun (נ) = Nothing happens. Next person’s turn!
- Gimel (ג) = Spinner takes the whole pot! Then everyone adds one more token to the pot.
- Hey (ה) = Spinner gets half of the pot.
- Shin (ש) = Spinner has to put one more token into the pot.
It’s a simple game of luck that can be a lot of fun for kids and families, plus helps you learn some Hebrew letters. Play until one person gets all of the tokens!
For more fun Hanukkah activities that’ll engage your kiddo and keep the conversation going, see PJ Library’s age-by-age guide to Hanukkah books, crafts, cooking, songs, videos, and more.
This article was originally published on December 10, 2020.