Spreading the Light of Hanukkah

What can Hanukkah mean for you?

Every December, in Jewish homes around the world, Hanukkah is celebrated. The candle holder, called a menorah, is brought out, and each night for eight nights, another candle is lit until, on the eighth night, all the candles burn brightly.

But what does this mean? Why are the candles lit at all? And why eight?

The roots of the holiday stretch back to the 2nd century BCE when Greek-Syrian King Antiochus forbade people from worshipping any other gods other than the Greek gods. The king seized the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and took it over, installing statues of Greek gods. A small group of Jews called the Maccabees fought the king’s army, and though they were small in number, their determination to gain religious freedom gave them strength. They were able to take back the temple, but when they entered it, they saw it was in bad shape and needed cleaning and repair. The legend of the Maccabees tells how there was only a small bit of oil to light the lamps for them to do this work. Not enough to provide light for more than a day, and they couldn’t get new oil for eight more days. But a miracle happened. The small bit of oil lasted eight days—giving them enough time to restore the temple. The eight candles celebrate the miracle of eight days.

When you look at a menorah, though, sometimes called a Hanukiah, you see nine candles. The ninth candle is called the shamash, meaning caretaker, and it is this candle we use to light the other eight candles. Why do we do this? Because it is forbidden to use the sacred Hanukkah candles for any practical purpose—such as lighting the other candles. The shamash candle is placed separately on the menorah, often higher. The lesson for this is that it is an honor to serve others, to use your talents, just as so many teachers do, to make others shine.

Over the centuries, new traditions have been added to the Hanukah observance. Nowadays, it’s customary to eat potato pancakes (latkes), which are fried in oil to enhance the memory of the importance of the oil. Children play with a four-sided top called a dreidel—a game of chance in which players can win another Hanukkah tradition: chocolate coins (gelt) wrapped in gold paper. Each of the four sides of the dreidel has a Hebrew letter written on it, the first letters of the words in Hebrew “Great Miracle Happened Here.” As we are taught in Sunday School, “With every Hanukkah candle we light, we illumine the most important messages of all: that we must always work to find light in the darkness, and we must always work to keep the light of religious freedom burning for all people, for all time.”

Because Hanukkah occurs around the same time as Christmas, many schools include a small Hanukkah celebration at this time as well, explaining the meaning of the holiday.

As a kid who once had to play the “I have a little dreidel” song on my mandolin at a school Christmas celebration and later as a mom who was invited to the classroom to explain Hanukkah to the children, this timely coinciding with Christmas has been problematic.

Here’s why:

Christmas is a major Christian holiday, in fact, the most important and the most loved. Christmas is so pervasive you can’t help but experience it: the Christmas trees in the department stores, the lights on your neighbors’ homes, the Christmas carols playing on the radio, the re-run of It’s a Wonderful Life. Above all, no matter your religion, you sense the supreme beauty and majesty of Christmas.

By contrast, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday, not as important as Passover, New Year’s (Rosh Hashanah), or the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). And as a minor holiday, it simply cannot compete with Christmas. Our small menorah with eight little candles can’t hold a candle to a six-foot Christmas tree, dazzling with pretty ornaments and colorful lightbulbs. We have no jolly Santa Claus, no sleigh with flying reindeer, no gorgeous music by Bach or Handel. For Hanukkah, we have only a collective reminding of an event that happened far away thousands of years ago when a miracle helped us.

In the past few years, consumer merchandise has been created to buttress Hanukkah, to make it feel more fun and light-hearted. Hanukkah gingerbread houses, Hanukkah ugly sweaters, and wacky hats…for dogs.

As a Jew, a children’s book author, and now a grandparent, I believe the best way to celebrate Hanukkah is not to try to puff it up to Christmas size, for that will never work. Rather, let’s enlarge Hanukkah with ideas and inclusivity. Hanukkah’s story of freedom is about a particular people in a specific era, but Hanukkah’s messages are timely and universal: winning against the oppressor, the strength of the small but mighty, and the importance of keeping your faith and maintaining hope. These are messages crucial in today’s world. As parents and educators, we can, depending on the child’s age, connect Hanukkah’s message of freedom with the plight of the Ukrainians or any other oppressed people today fighting a larger power. We can connect Hanukkah to staying true to yourself and your values as a minority. We can connect Hanukkah with the value of religious freedom. We can connect Hanukkah with gratitude that we are free and remember those who fought so we can enjoy our freedom today. And, we can connect Hanukkah with the spirit of perseverance and faith—even against seemingly impossible odds.

In children’s books, the messages of Hanukkah are expressed in numerous ways. Here are just a few examples:

The Peddler’s Gift

The Peddler’s Gift, a picture book by Maxine Rose Schur, tells the story of a Jewish boy in 19th century Ukraine who steals a dreidel from a poor peddler whom the boy thinks is too foolish to notice the theft. But the young boy is wrong and soon discovers the wisdom of the peddler, leaving him for the rest of his life with a cherished Hanukkah memory of the unexpected human miracles.

Hanukkah at Valley Forge

Hanukkah at Valley Forge, a picture book by Stephen Krensky, tells the true story of how General George Washington learned about Hanukkah from one of his soldiers who, during the battle in that bitter winter, observed him lighting a Hanukkah candle.

The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah

The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah by Isaac Bashevis Singer is a collection of moving Hanukkah stories for older children set in Poland by this Nobel prize-winning author.

But a story need not be specifically a Hanukkah story to express the message of this holiday. The messages of Hanukkah can be found in most literature! For example, several Lawley Publishing books are examples of simple stories that speak to understanding your own power and advocating for yourself. The lesson in these books is that even if you feel small and helpless, there is a strength within you to fight for yourself and to do great things. Two examples are Tell Everyone by Kim Bushman Aguilar, in which she teaches children how to recognize abuse and encourages them to tell an adult—to stand up for themselves, and Adam the Ant, which shows that even someone small and different can make a difference.

So, for Hanukkah, which like so many other holidays is trending toward “Hallmark-ish,” let’s enlarge the celebration not by tsoshkes but by expanding the holiday’s messages to include all of us here and now. This way, when the menorah candles are extinguished, we bring the light of Hanukah’s message beyond December and into our hearts.

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