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Happy Hanukkah: A Very Old “Spin” on Holiday Traditions

Everything you need to know about the festival of lights!

As a Jewish teenager, I love teaching people about the winter holiday I celebrate: Hanukkah! And yes, it can be spelled a variety of ways- the name comes from the Hebrew word חנוכה and the English language doesn’t have letters that make those sounds. So if you think that you’ve seen Hanukkah spelled differently, you’re probably right. Hanukkah is a unique holiday that involves an interesting history and many fun customs. And although festivities are different for every family, I would like to share some of my fun family traditions so that you can learn a little bit more about the Festival of Lights!

A little background on the holiday of Hanukkah

In our Jewish history, in the Temple of Jerusalem, the Maccabees (a group of people who stood up for their religious beliefs against the Greek army) found a tiny bit of oil to use for light. This oil was supposed to barely last a day, but instead it burned for 8. This is why we celebrate Hanukkah for 8 nights instead of one, like Christmas. And notice how I said 8 nights instead of days? The Jewish people believe that our holidays begin when the sun goes down. The day that the Israelites found the oil is known as the 25th of Kislev, a month occurring around December. Jewish people follow the Hebrew calendar, which is why Hanukkah can be on the same day as Thanksgiving one year and Christmas the next!

hanukkah menorah

Hanukkah customs are different in households all over the world

My family is very small, so a lot of our traditions include our friends. We love to teach them about our holiday and why it is different than Christmas, Kwanzaa, and other winter festivities.

First off, my family celebrates Hanukkah for the full 8 nights, and we exchange gifts each night. Many families stop doing this as their children grow up, but my sister and I still enjoy this tradition so we continue to do it. Every night after sundown, we all gather around to light the hanukiah and chant the prayers over the candles (in Hebrew of course). You might be confused about why I said that we light the hanukiah instead of the menorah, which you’ve most likely heard before. A menorah actually only has 8 candles total, whereas a hanukiah has 9, one of which we use as our shamash, or pointer, candle. We light the shamash candle first, then pick it up and use it to light the other candles. On the first night, only the shamash and the first candle are lit. Then every night we light another, so that by the final night of Hanukkah the entire hanukiah is lit. We leave the Hanukkah candles burning at night and do not blow them out, due to our beliefs.

hanukkah dreidel

Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel

Another fun tradition that we do is that we usually have a small Hanukkah get-together where we invite over our family friends, as well as a few of my close friends. The best part about the holidays is people coming together, and being Jewish doesn’t change that! We make latkes (more on this delicious treat later), eat matzo ball soup (another delicious Jewish food) and play dreidel together.

Dreidel is a game that involves a spinning top and gelt (chocolate coins). There are 4 sides to a dreidel and there is a Hebrew letter on each side: נ (nun), ג (gimmel), ה (hay), and ש (shin). Each player takes turns spinning the dreidel (warning: if you play with your Jewish friends, they’ll most likely be really good at this part!) and whatever it lands on determines how many pieces of gelt you receive. If it lands on nun, you get nothing. If it lands on gimmel, you get the entire pile of gelt in the middle of the table. Hay means that you get to take half of the gelt, and shin means you have to put one of your own into the pile. So basically you want a lot of gimmels and no shins!

It’s an unspoken rule of Hanukkah that you must make and eat latkes

Latkes are potato pancakes fried in oil. They can be eaten with sour cream, applesauce, or just plain if you’re boring like me. My dad always makes the latkes and he loves to mix up the recipes- he’s made them Southwestern-style, and we’ve even tried cheese-infused and citrus-infused latkes! We always share this treat with our friends and usually bring some to our neighbors as well.

latkes hanukkah

Here is our latke recipe if you are interested in making some for yourself!

Krell Family Latke Recipe

Ingredients
5 lbs. Idaho baking potatoes (peel and leave in cold water until ready to use)
5 eggs
3 medium onions, grated
5-7 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon of salt
3 teaspoons of black pepper

Directions
1. Blend together potatoes, onions, and eggs.
2. Pour mixture into colander to get out excess water.
3. Then, in large mixing bowl, add flour, salt, and pepper to potato mixture. You can also add garlic powder, if desired.
4. Meanwhile, heat ¼” deep oil in large frying pan on high flame. Make sure oil is hot before proceeding.
5. Scoop out mixture with tablespoon and drop dollops into frying pan.
6. Turn when golden brown.
7. Enjoy this delicious holiday treat!

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about my holiday traditions, and that you’ll be inspired to try playing dreidel or making latkes yourself! Learning about other religions and holidays is eye-opening, because there are so many opportunities to learn and enjoy new customs!

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Also published on Medium.

Rachell Krell is 18 years old and a senior at Horizon High School. She...