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Over the years, Hanukkah, a minor celebration that isn’t even in the Torah, has become the unofficial national holiday of the American Jewish community. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was promoted as the Jewish alternative to Christmas. Since then, many individuals and communal leaders have fought against the “make Hanukkah big” movement and urged Jewish families to refrain from embracing the idea of Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas.
But the reminders of Hanukkah’s lesser holiday status have not stopped its growth. What once was an eight-day festival has evolved into a six-week season. And many Jewish families are using the holiday to reafﬁrm their Jewishness in a big way. Instead of small electric menorahs in windows, they’re putting a Jewish twist on non-Jewish holiday decorations and traditions, declaring in a loud and proud way, “I’m Jewish!” For interfaith families, this increase in Hanukkah festiveness allows parents from other backgrounds to indulge their love of all-things-holiday while honoring their commitment to building a Jewish home.
As we move into the holiday season, here are some ideas for boldly sharing the light of Hanukkah. Share the creative ways you make the Festival of Lights special in the comments section.
Hang Hanukkah on the Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates: Wreaths and door decorations are not just for Christmas. Pinterest, Etsy, and eBay have many Hanukkah wreath styles and ideas for making your own. From rustic Jewish stars with lights to evergreen wreaths with Hanukkah garland and dreidels, there are many pre-made and make-your-own options. My neighbor hangs a Hanukkah banner on her front door and highlights it by placing an evergreen garland mixed with Stars of David on the surrounding doorframe.
Shine Some Light on Your Jewish Identity: Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, yet holiday lights have always been associated with Christmas. But in recent years, some Jewish families have decided to make holiday lights their own. A Christian friend, who is raising Jewish children with her husband, and loves holiday lights, decorates the outside of her house with blue and white LEDS. For those that like lawn ornaments, there are lighted Hanukkah characters and symbols including pre-lit Jewish dogs and dreidels, and 8-foot lighted inflatable menorahs.
Wear Your Jewishness on Your Sleeve (or Pants or Chest): Represent the Jewish tradition and stand out from the red, white and green crowd in cozy Hanukkah PJs, leggings, t-shirts, and underwear. Have some real holiday fun in an ugly Hanukkah sweater and menorah hat. Spin around your office Christmas party in dreidel socks.
Rock it Like a Maccabee: While you may not find any local radio stations that play only Hanukkah songs for six-plus weeks, there is plenty of great holiday music to get you in the Festival-of-Lights-spirit. Tune into Jewish Rock Radio on your computer or mobile device. Check out the Jewish A Cappella group the Maccabeats singing “Candlelight,” the Hanukkah version of “Dynamite,” and “All About That Neis.” Listen to “Miracle” by Jewish reggae rapper Matisyahu. Explore the music of Jewish rockers Dan Nichols, Rick Recht and Josh Nelson, and the Kosher Gospel of Joshua Nelson.
Deck Your Halls With Stars and Dreidels: Dress your mantel with silver tinsel and modern star garland. Hang Star of David paper lanterns. Add some festiveness to your home by dangling Hanukkah ornaments throughout. Add a Jewish twist to an advent with Hanukkah countdown bags that hang over the fireplace. Use Hanukkah tablecloths, napkins and dishes for the entire holiday. Get more ideas online.
Eat Like A Champ: Hanukkah follows the traditional Jewish story of “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” So, eat like a champion. Expand your holiday menu beyond latkes and donuts. Make different kinds of Hanukkah cookies and share with family, friends and coworkers. Enjoy a holiday breakfast with dreidel muffins and dreidel-shaped pancakes, or use your Hanukkah cookie cutters to make holiday-themed challah French toast. Bake Star of David cupcakes for a yummy dessert. Get creative with your traditional foods. Try squash or root vegetable latkes. Think outside the brisket and chicken box.
This week, Ruthie came home from Sunday School with Shabbat. In a box. With a combination of resources from Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the creativity of her religious school principal, the box was filled with Shabbat crafts, ritual items, and ideas for making Shabbat a crafty family affair.
I imagined a calm and civilized Shabbat craft session after school next Friday before Shabbat begins. However, as I watched Ruthie and Chaya exuberantly dive into the box before I even got a chance to take my coat off, I decided to let them take control of both timing and crafting. They made quick work of decorating challah covers, painting a decorative kiddush cup, and rolling beeswax candles. Ruthie raided the spice drawer and returned from the kitchen with a sweet smelling Havdalah spice bag. Impressed by their efforts but a little disappointed by the lack of available teaching moments in their artistic frenzy, I crossed my fingers that their Shabbat enthusiasm would last the whole six days between Sunday morning and Friday dinner time.
So far, so good. Every time a new visitor has come to our house, Ruthie has sprinted into the dining room, returning with a pile of challah covers to show off to our guest. I have caught Chaya singing “Bim Bam” quietly in the regular litany of songs she sings when no one else appears to be listening. They are excited for Shabbat.
I also have a new hope for the items from the box. The craft projects engaged the girls in thinking about Shabbat – What are the ritual items? Do the kinds of candles we use need to be special in some way? What is different about Shabbat dinner and Havdalah? In this way, the box accomplished what it was supposed to, I think, teaching more about Shabbat through age appropriate activities.
The results of the activities mean something more. Now, when we set the Shabbat table, the girls will physically own the space. The dishes may be ones Eric and I acquired long before they were born, and we may assign drinking glasses based on breakability and appetite. But the challah cover they see, hopefully covering the challah they have baked, will be theirs. The candles we light together were rolled between their own fingers. In these very concrete ways, often the ones most obvious for children their age to grasp, the holiday requires, and engages, something from everyone around the table. Because of this, I can’t wait to set it this Friday!