By Katherine DeVries | @thepaperdart
Hanukkah is just around the corner! And although a part of me always dreads this holiday, because eight days of celebration feels like a lot, it’s also super important to me to make a big deal out of it. Because while my family identifies as religiously Jewish, we’re also culturally interfaith, and we celebrate many traditional Christian holidays (Christmas included), in addition to all of the Jewish ones.
While I love Christmas (I’m writing this on November 4th, and Christmas music is already well integrated into my family’s daily routines), I don’t always love how thoroughly it overshadows Hanukkah. In our community, participation in Christmas rituals and traditions is assumed—by teachers, friends, neighbors, and even strangers we encounter on the street. My daughter is only four, and she has already had to correct more than one stranger, by telling them that Hanukkah, not Christmas, is the next big holiday in the lineup for her (she’s a picky eater, so Thanksgiving doesn’t count).
And while it really is tough to beat Santa, and Christmas cookies, and Miracle on 34th Street, I try my best to make Hanukkah magical, too, in hopes that my kids can take pride in and enjoy the Jewish sides of their identities, and possibly even share with those same teachers, friends and neighbors, just how awesome this holiday can be.
So here’s a breakdown of how my interfaith family celebrates Hanukkah—including some of the crafts, rituals, toys and foods that make the holiday special for us. I hope you enjoy it, and find something you can incorporate into your traditions, as well!
DIY Hanukkah Decor
Preparing for the holidays is half the fun, and Hanukkah is no exception. I love the look of homemade decorations—especially when they’re made by toddlers with very poor fine-motor skills. My absolute favorite homemade Hanukkah decorations are the menorahs my kids and I have made out of toys, blocks, or whatever else we could get our hands on that year.
Making a menorah is super simple, and requires only a few supplies (see below). You can make them out of pretty much anything, but over the past two years, we’ve had a blast using letter blocks, and hot-wheel cars.
We also decorate our own dreidels every year, using these blank, wooden dreidels as a starting point, and this year, my four-year-old is old enough to write the Hebrew letters on herself!
And last year, my family decorated our playroom with this “paper doll” dreidel chain, and this felt “Hanukkah Countdown” wall hanging (which was really just for me, since I always seem to forget which night we’re on…).
While the lighting of candles is a central component of the Hanukkah tradition, it is also integral part of the Jewish prayer ritual in general. Candles represent transition—be it from the work week, to the day of rest (Shabbat), or from secular daily life, to the sacred time of prayer and reflection.
During Hanukkah, candles also represent the power of miracles—the eight candles on the menorah representing the miraculous way in which the single day’s worth of oil the Maccabees found when they reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem managed to last for eight.
I love having my kids participate in the lighting of candles on Hanukkah (as well as on Shabbat), because it introduces them to the importance of rest and reflection. It also allows them to feel an exciting level of autonomy over, and participation in, the celebration (because what four-year-old wouldn’t be excited to hold a lit candle in her hand…).
For my youngest kids, we use this wooden toy menorah from Maisonette Kids, as well as this Kid Kraft wooden Shabbat set, so that they, too, can feel included in the ritual (without lighting themselves on fire).
The Hanukkah Meal
The miracle of the oil is also the reason why fried foods, like latkes and friend doughnuts (sufganiyot), are so often incorporated into Hanukkah meals. And while someday I hope to have the time and energy to make doughnuts from scratch, for now I plan on cutting some corners and using this recipe to make them using store-bought pizza dough and jelly. My kids and I used this recipe last year as well, and while it doesn’t quite taste like a real doughnut, the younger crowd didn’t seem to notice. If you’re in the mood for something more impressive, and you’ve got a little more time on your hands, I recommend this recipe for a jelly donut cake that a friend of mine made last year. It is somewhat time-intensive, but delicious.
When it comes to the Hanukkah meal, while my family lights the candles, and says prayers, each of the eight nights, we only plan on having real, celebratory dinners on the first and last nights. And, I don’t even plan on making either of them! As a mom of three, young children, I’ve given myself permission to outsource the part of the holiday that does not bring me joy (and by that, I mean cooking a large, complicated meal that all of my children will inevitably refuse to eat). Instead, I plan on ordering the main dishes from our local Jewish deli, and making only the easy parts at home (the latkes, applesauce, and desserts).
In past years, I’ve used this sweet-potato latke recipe (full disclosure, it’s far from “authentic,” since it’s baked, not fried, but I find it much more convenient to cook them this way), as well as this easy, Instant Pot applesauce recipe (no refined sugar added), and both have been very well-received by kids and adults alike.
Remembering Loved Ones
When we first met, I asked my Jewish husband what Jews believe about death, and the afterlife. (Romantic, I know.) And he told me, as many Jews would, that a person dies two deaths—once, when the spirit leaves the body, and again, when that person’s name is spoken for the last time.
I have always found this to be an incredibly powerful belief, and is one that I think about often, particularly around the holidays. A large part of why I love holidays, and time-based rituals in general, is because they provide us with opportunities to pause, reflect, and remember. And on Hanukkah, I make a particular effort to take some time to remember the family and friends who are no longer with us, both by speaking their names, and remembering something good about them out loud, and with others.
The past few years have, unfortunately, been filled with a lot of loss for a lot of people, and I take great comfort in knowing that I am allowing some of the people who have left us, both this year, and in years prior, to live on, in a way, through my own, and my family’s, memories of them.
Complex religious holidays can be hard for kids to wrap their heads around. Celebrating multiple, seemingly conflicting holidays can also be hard for kids to wrap their heads around. For my family, reading as many picture books as we can get our hands on about Hanukkah, Judaism, and interfaith families, has been hugely helpful in introducing our kids to big concepts and rituals, and in normalizing Judaism for them. Below, I have compiled a brief list of a few of our favorites for Hanukkah in particular. And, if your family is Jewish, or interfaith, I highly recommend checking out PJ Library—a FREE service that will send each of your kids an age-appropriate book, that is either about Judaism, features a Jewish character, or is written by a Jewish author—every month!
- The Ninth Night of Hanukkah by Erica S. Perl and Shahar Kober
- Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah by Olga Ivanov and Aleksey Ivanov
- A Rugrat’s Hanukkah by Kim Smith
- Meet the Latkes by Alan Silberberg
- Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama by Selina Alko
- Little Red Ruthie by Gloria Koster and Sue Eastland
- Goodnight Bubbala by Sheryl Haft and Jill Weber
- The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin by Martha Seif Simpson
I hope that you’ve found this article in some way helpful, and that you have the most wonderful Hanukkah, and the happiest holiday season!
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Katherine DeVries | @thepaperdart
Katherine is a stay-at-home-mom to three kids. She and her husband are originally from the Midwest but now reside in sunny, Southern California. Before taking time off last year, she spent 10 years teaching middle school English in public and charter schools throughout the Los Angeles area. She has a passion for literature (of both the children and adult varieties) which she shares on her personal blog, The Paper Dart.