Despite Chanukah being one of the few Jewish holidays not mentioned in the Torah, it gets a lot of play — pun intended. Shmuel Arnold of Baltimore recalls that while growing up in a secular Jewish household, his parents made an extra effort to give Chanukah gifts every night. Sometimes they needed to get creative, like wrapping socks or delivering a gift from an extended family member.
Without even a rendition of “Rock of Ages” around the Chanukah menorah, Arnold says the holiday had one meaning: presents. Today, however, married with three children ranging in age from 9 to 18, Arnold — like many other parents — tries to infuse more meaning into the Festival of Lights.
With eight days of Chanukah coming up, here are eight ways to celebrate the holiday that don’t involve gifts:
Every year, children learn how to light the candles and about the miracle of the Maccabees in school or Hebrew school. They also make a token Chanukah menorah — likely out of clay, nuts, and bolts. Fun and creative activities can help Chanukah come alive at home, too. Pinterest has a colorful variety of Chanukah crafts that work for children ranging from toddlers through high schoolers.
A favorite in my house is the Chanukah handprint. Children dip their palms into a bowl of fabric paint and stamp it on a sweatshirt (it works on paper, too, but a sweatshirt is more practical). Then, they dip each of their fingers into paint to create finger candles. Finally, they take their thumb and stamp it in the middle — the shamash. Add a flame to each candle, and you’re done!
My younger kids love the feel of the gushy paint and often use a different color for every finger candle. My oldest daughter is careful to ensure her print looks authentic. She uses the same color for the palm and the fingers and then adds perfect yellow or orange ovals on top.
It might not seem so original, but Chanukah is great time for a party. Unlike other Jewish holidays that involve extra time in synagogue, or for Orthodox Jews might preclude playing music or driving, Chanukah is eight days (except for a regularly observed Shabbat) of unabashed fun.
Birthday in a Box offers traditional Chanukah party tips, as well as some fun and quirky new spins on Chanukah decorations, food, and favors.
If you live in a “Jewish area,” where lots of families celebrate the holiday, Arnold suggests taking a “menorah tour.” He says that in Baltimore or Israel (where he used to live), one can walk around the streets and see everyone’s lights in the windows.
“It’s amazing. … Being a yid is something you don’t have to hide anymore. When my father was growing up he used to get beaten up for being Jewish and he learned to place the menorah on the table, somewhere hidden inside the house,” says Arnold. “When we light, we make a big deal to put it in the window … and help people re-member that you can be proud to be a Jew.”
You have a little dreidel — so use it! Pull the neighbors, young and old, together for a dreidel tournament. Break into teams of three and four and get spinning. We use candy as prizes. (It’s best to use something wrapped since it will be touched by lots of little hands).
You can purchase dreidels in bulk from Judaica.com or often at your local synagogue’s gift shop. It adds to the excitement when you have dreidels of various sizes and colors.
If you’re particularly serious about dreidel playing, I found a website for a “Chai stakes” dreidel tournament that breaks down the “official” rules and regulations for “World Series Dreidel.” In my house, however, we seem to do better when the children are free to cry over spinning too many Hebrew-letter shins (put two antes in the center), and the prize is Hershey’s Kisses.
Talk about the miracle
As Arnold’s children have gotten older, he uses the 30 minutes required to sit around the Chanukah candles as a way to discuss the miracles of the holiday and some of its more esoteric significance.
“When Hashem created the world there were no stars or planets. The or — the light — was a non-physical or. That or, the light of God, is what the Yevanim (Greeks) were trying to knock out of the world,” Arnold explains. “I tell my children that we can use Hashem’s light like a soldier uses night vision goggles … to see His hidden miracles, to appreciate the spiritual light.”
Shop for someone in need
Rebecca Katz of Overland Park, Kan., remembers that as a child she and her family would work with a local charity to receive the names of local families in need — Jewish and non-Jewish. Then, she and her siblings would be provided those families’ holiday wish lists and go shopping for them (instead of for themselves). Once the gifts were purchased, they would hand wrap them and deliver them in person.
“I remember one year, we got to this family, went upstairs and they had a tree, but it was completely empty underneath,” Katz says. “We put all the gifts there and it was so unexpected. The children were so happy.”
Re-enact the Chanukah story
Younger children can enjoy a game of dress-up. If you have enough kids or can get classmates involved, a reenactment of the Chanukah story can add to the spirit of the eight days. Kids enjoy dressing up in togas (just use some old sheets) and wielding plastic swords and shields. To make it easier, use a book, such as The Story of Chanukah by Norma Simon, as a guide.
If your own children don’t want to dress up and tell the Chanukah story, Chabad.org has a large collection of Chanukah videos that both educate and entertain.
Chanukah is sweeter and oily-finger-lickin’ good with homemade sufganiyot (deep-fried jelly doughnuts). Miriam Litt of Modi’in, Israel, recalls how she used to spend hours in the kitchen baking Chanukah donuts.
“I used real whipping cream and added pudding and then I would squirt it inside,” she says.
Sometimes, she would get creative by mixing up the creamy flavors.
“I did my thing and the kids — they sure liked eating it,” Miriam says with a laugh.