How to Celebrate Hanukkah With Your Family

Two girls eating dessert by menorah

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Hanukkah is a time of family togetherness and an opportunity to celebrate the human spirit’s ability to find light in the darkness, and persevere despite difficulties. The eight-day-long celebration also involves a fair share of fun, merriment—and of course, delicious foods to eat.

Many of us grew up celebrating Hanukkah with our families, and are looking for new ways to celebrate with our growing families. Others of us are looking to celebrate it for the first time, and may even be celebrating the holiday alongside other traditional winter holidays. The good news is that most of the heartwarming celebrations of Hanukkah can be enjoyed by anyone, and the traditions are easy to adopt and embrace.

Let’s explore the history and meaning of Hanukkah, as well as some special ways you can celebrate with your family.

What Is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish revolt against the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) in the second century B.C. At that time, the Seleucids had gained control of Israel (known as Judea then) and were forcing their religion on the Jewish people. Jews were made to worship Greek gods and goddesses and were prohibited from practicing their own religion.

A group of Jews known as the Maccabees, led by Judah Maccabee, successfully revolted against the Seleucids and forced them out of Israel. After this, Judah decided to reclaim the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by lighting and refurbishing its seven-branched lighting fixture, known as a menorah.

But the Maccabees found that they had only one can of oil to light their menorah, and they expected it only to last for one night. However, this oil lasted for eight nights, and the Jews proclaimed this a miracle. This miracle is what inspired the eight-day-long celebration known as Hanukkah.

When Is It Celebrated?

The dates that Hanukkah is celebrated vary each year and are based on the Jewish calendar. The eve of Kislev 25 is when Hanukkah begins, and the celebration continues for eight days after that. Usually, this coincides with late November or early-to-mid December on our calendar.

Why Is It Celebrated?

Hanukkah, which translates to “dedication,” is celebrated to honor the Jewish struggle and triumph against the Seleucids, and is also a celebration of the miracle of lights that took place when the Jews reclaimed their temple.

As such, Hanukkah is a multi-day celebration that honors the history and tradition of Judaism, as well as the events that happened after the Maccabees got their temple back. The celebration involves a ceremonial lighting of a menorah, which can be done at home, at temple, or at other types of Hanukkah gatherings.

There are eight candles on a Hanukkah menorah. Each day—one by one—another candle is added, until all eight candles are lit. Prayers are typically said as the menorah is lit. After the menorah is lit, traditional Hanukkah songs are usually sung, followed by dancing, exchanging gifts, and eating lots of delicious food.

Traditional Hanukkah meals are all about oil, in honor of the oil that lasted for eight days. Fried potato pancakes, called latkes, are a holiday favorite. Fried donuts filled with jelly, called sufganiyot, are also a Hanukkah staple. Chocolate coins, called gelt, are often given to children during Hanukkah celebrations.

Family-Friendly Ways to Celebrate Hanukkah

The traditions of Hanukkah are simple and straightforward, and can be embraced by anyone who wishes to partake. There are many fun ways for kids to get involved, and Hanukkah is often a  favorite and memorable holiday for children.

The main part of Hanukkah involves lighting the menorah each night. The rest of the traditions are optional, and you can decide which you want to participate in.

Songs and Books Around the Menorah

Lighting the menorah is something that kids love to watch. The burning candles are mesmerizing and exciting. Of course, you need to be careful with the little ones, and watch them carefully near the lit candles.

There are some traditional prayers that are said while lighting the candles, and Jewish families can decide whether or not to recite them. Whatever you do, though, it’s always fun to have a few traditions that coincide with the lighting of the menorah.

Some kid-friendly ideas include playing a few Hanukkah songs, learning the lyrics, and having a family sing-a-long. Traditional favorites include “Hanukkah O Hanukkah” and “I Have A Little Dreidel.”

You can also read a few Hanukkah books together as a family. This is a great way to learn more about the story of Hanukkah and help children understand where these traditions come from and what their meaning is.

Hanukkah Books to Explore

Latke Making Party

Traditional latkes (potato pancakes) are usually made by grating potatoes and mixing them with chopped onions, flour or matzo meal, and eggs, then forming them into pancakes and deep-frying them. Kids usually love eating latkes, and they also love making them. With some basic safety precautions in place, you can get your child in on the grating, mixing, and even the frying.

One of the great things about an eight-day-long celebration is that there are plenty of opportunities to try different recipes or variations on the same recipe. There are many different ways of making latkes, including using sweet potatoes, zucchini, beets, butternut squash in place of potatoes, or mixing in different herbs and spices. Your family can try a different latke recipe each night!

Dreidel Night

Dreidels are four-sided spinning tops usually made of plastic or wood. They are used to play a classic Hanukkah game usually referred to simply as “Dreidel.” In the game, you gather a pile of coins in the center, and each player takes a turn spinning the dreidel.

Each side of the dreidel is labeled with a Hebrew letter that corresponds with an instruction you must follow when your dreidel lands on that side. In the dreidel lands on “nun,” you do nothing. If it lands on “gimmel,” you can take the entire pot of coins. If it lands on “hay,” you are allowed to take half the pot, and if it lands on “shin,” you have to give some of your coins away.

Dreidel is an easy game for young children to play because it’s a game of chance. It’s also a good opportunity for kids to learn a few Hebrew letters. Coins can be substituted with chocolate gelt to make it extra enjoyable. Usually, a winner is determined by whoever claims all the coins at once, but you can have winners more evenly distribute the coins at the end.

8 Days of Tchotchkes (Small Gifts)

Traditionally, children just get chocolate gelt each night of Hanukkah. But as things have evolved, and children want to participate in the gift-giving season, many families end up doing Hanukkah gifts.

Usually, children get one tchotchke each night (the Yiddish word for knickknack or “small gift”). This may be a small bag of gelt or other Hanukkah candy, a Hanukkah book or toy, or any other little gift for a child. Some families will do a small gift each night, and then one large gift on the first or last night of the celebration.

Family Donut Decorating Night

Donuts are another Hanukkah tradition. Like latkes, they are eaten to celebrate the miracle of the oil that marks the holiday. You can make or buy traditional Hanukkah donuts, which are jelly-filled, deep-fried donuts called sufganiyot.

You can also make eating donuts a fun and creative activity by decorating them with your children. Just gather up some favorite donuts, as well as some decorating supplies. Get icing, sprinkles, and colored sugar. You can also purchase some Hanukkah-themed stencils to use as part of your decorating party.

A Word from Verywell

Hanukkah is a holiday that children look forward to all year and that forms many lasting memories for them. It’s a chance to gather with loved ones, eat yummy foods, and participate in time-honored ceremonies, games, and merriment. Like many winter holidays, Hanukkah usually comes during some of the darkest days of the year, and the lights from the menorah remind us that where there is darkness, there can also be light.

For Jewish children, Hanukkah is a chance to connect to familial and religious roots. But you don’t have to be a religious Jew, or even Jewish at all, to celebrate the holiday. Hanukkah can be celebrated alongside other winter holidays and can be done with or without religious aspects. Most of all, Hanukkah is a chance to gather with those we love and be reminded that with faith and hope, anything is possible.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.