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Ask children what they like best about Hanukkah, and chances are the answer will be "presents!" Of course, that's true in our house. But when my kids were younger, they used to get excited when I unpacked the big plastic bin in which we stored our Hanukkah menorahs. They would watch as I unpacked each menorah, waiting for their favorite to appear--the blue one, the glass one or the one with the glitter that they made in preschool.
"Typically, children love to help their parents prepare for special occasions, and holidays like Hanukkah are no exception. Whether it's cooking together, reading a story about the holiday or encouraging your child to make some decorations, children are more invested in something if they have a concrete stake in it," says Sheri Cutler, director of Kol Ami Nursery School, a joint program of Federation Early Learning Services and Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, Pa. FELS provides high-quality early childhood education programs to children in both Jewish and secular communities and, according to Cutler, one thing parents might not know is that most children love to learn new words, especially words in a foreign language.
"A holiday is an ideal time to introduce new words to your child," says Cutler. "For Hanukkah, you can teach them the Hebrew and Yiddish words associated with the holiday, like 'gelt,' the Yiddish word for 'money' that is used for the gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins, or 'latke,' the fried potato pancake eaten on Hanukkah. Once children learn a new word, they'll use it over and over again."
Lighting the candles in a menorah or hanukkiah (hah-noo-key-AH), a menorah with places for nine candles made just for Hanukkah, is the most important aspect of the holiday. Menorahs can be made of almost anything; shapes, colors and sizes vary. The Internet is a great place to browse the many different styles, materials and prices of menorahs. Check out Israeliproducts.com, which features items made in Israel, menorah.com for menorahs featuring dogs, flowers and baseball players, or the online gift shop of the National Museum of American Jewish History for some more artistic interpretations.
You can even make your own menorah. Here are two to try:
For younger children, it's fun to make a menorah that uses faux candles so they can "light" it themselves with no worries. This one uses nine popsicle sticks topped with glitter (or orange marker) to stand in for the candles.
First, the adult should use a pencil to mark the half-way spot on the tube. This is the place for the ninth candle. Use the scissors or knife to carefully make four slits, each as wide as one of your popsicle sticks, evenly spaced on either side of the center mark. Then cut a slit on the center spot. When you're done, you should have nine slits in a row, down the tube. Now let the child decorate the paper towel tube with the glitter, stickers, markers, etc. Let dry, if necessary.
Finally, glue the tube, slits-side up, to the upside-down paper cup to form the base of the menorah. Color the nine popsicle sticks with crayons or markers, making the top of each stick red or orange (or glitter) for the "flame." Each night, your child can "light" the menorah by placing an additional popsicle stick candle in the slits.
For older children, menorahs that hold real candles can be made out of almost anything--a slab of clay with nine finger holes, a block of wood with nine drilled holes or nine small soda-bottle lids glued to a base. You'll need to make a trip to the hardware store before you craft this menorah, but I hope you'll agree it's worth it when you see how a 3/8-inch nut makes a perfect-size Hanukkah candle holder.
Glue the small block of wood or spool in the center of the large block. This is where the nut for the shamash candle will go. Then glue four nuts on either side of the shamash, in a row, on the top of the block. When the spool is dry, glue the last nut on top of it. Then decorate the base of the menorah by gluing on the mosaic tiles in shapes, patterns or random arrangements.