Many folks, Jews and non-Jews alike, have come to think of Hanukkah as "Christmas Lite"-after all, both holidaystake place at the same time of year, and involve feasting, decorating, and elaborate exchanges of presents. However, Hanukkah has its own set of ancient traditions and rituals that make it as different from Christmas as, well, Passover is different from Easter. Here's how to observe this holiday in its own unique way.
Know what you're celebrating. Hanukkah commemorates the victory of a band of Jewish warriors, the Maccabees, over the Syrian king Antiochus almost 2,500 years ago. After driving out the Syrians, the Maccabees reoccupied the Temple of Jerusalem, where they found enough oil to keep the all-important "Eternal Light" shining for only one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, hence the eight days of Hanukkah (which is derived from the Hebrew word for "rededication.")
Light a menorah. One of the symbols most closely associated with Judaism, the menorah is a nine-branched candelabra used during the eight days of Hanukkah. On Hanukkah eve, celebrants light a "shamash" (usually the extra candle in the middle of the menorah), then use this lit candle to light the first candle on the left. This ritual continues over the next eight days until all eight candles are lit.
Sing some songs. There aren't quite as many Hanukkah songs as there are Christmas carols, but you'll be surprised by their variety. Probably the most famous (at least to non-Jews) is "I Have a Little Dreidel," which is sung to accompany the dreidel game, a harmless game of chance in which kids win (or lose) candy by spinning an inscribed top.
Fry up some latkes. Practically every Jewish holiday has its traditional food: hamentaschen (triangle-shaped cookies) on Purim, matzoh (unleavened bread) on Passover, and latkes (potato pancakes fried in oil) on Hanukkah. As tasty as they are, latkes can be unhealthy to eat for eight consecutive days, so feel free to explore the rest of the Jewish cookbook (flanken, gefilte fish, etc.)
Hand out presents. Here's where Hanukkah is very different from Christmas: kids usually don't receive one big "Hanukkah gift," but eight small gifts bestowed over the course of the holiday. Because eight big gifts in a row are an expensive proposition, Hanukkah gifts are usually small, but fun-think toy soldiers, to commemorate the Maccabees, or even a plain old Slinky.
For Hanukkah Gifts
By Bob Strauss.