We're not an eight-days-of-gifts sort of family. In fact, we're not really a Chanukkah gift family at all. While others give the twins gifts on Chanukkah, we give our family gifts a few months later during the holiday of Purim. Instead, we focus our family traditions for the holiday around food and art projects.
Americans treat Chanukkah as the Jewish version of Christmas, but it couldn't be farther from the truth. In actuality, it is a small holiday that is about fighting assimilation so it's sort of amusing that it has become an assimilated holiday borrowing ideas from Christmas (gift giving, for instance) and somehow being presented as important as Christmas. I guess to understand how we celebrate Chanukkah, you have to understand the story of Chanukkah and the meaning behind the holiday.
It all goes back to King Antiochus IV. Rather than continuing with the live-and-let-live practices towards Jews that other Hellenistic rulers brought to the land, Antiochus instated laws about the practice of Judaism--in other words, executing those who practiced Judaism--and ruined the Temple. Mattityahu and his sons, including Judah, who led the battles after his father died, fought back. At first, few people joined them because they were waiting for G-d to intervene. But the story is that people realized that they needed to take action in order for G-d to intercede (sort of one of those "G-d helps those who help themselves" moments). Completely outnumbered but dedicated to the cause, the followers of the Maccabees (as Mattityahu and his sons were known) engaged in guerrilla warfare and managed to overtake the government. After the revolution, they rededicated the Temple (which had been defiled by pig sacrifices at the altar).
Some people think that Chanukkah is celebrated for eight days because of some story where there was oil found in the Temple and it was only supposed to be enough to last for one day but it lasted for eight. I remember learning this story in Hebrew school and being told that this was the miracle of Chanukkah and what we were celebrating.
Turns out, not so much.
The story of the oil didn't show up until about 700 years after the Maccabean War. Strangely enough, a text that tells the Chanukkah story from 400 years earlier makes no mention of the oil. The reason the Second Book of Maccabees gives for the eight day celebration is that they held the festival of Succot (which is an eight day festival that falls every year a little after Yom Kippur) to celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple after they were given religious freedom again. The next year, they held Succot at its correct time and honoured that additional celebration of Succot that happened after the Maccabean War by holding an eight day celebration. And that's Chanukkah.
So you see why turning Chanukkah into a Jewish Christmas is a little strange?
So what is this celebration about? Jews don't celebrate war, therefore, it's not about the victory. Most people will still insist that the celebration refers to the miracle of the oil, but if the miracle of the oil was simply a story, what are we celebrating?
Personally, I look at the holiday as a kind of Thanksgiving. It is that period of peace that comes at the end of a struggle where you're simply thankful for what you have. Just as Succot is a harvest holiday where thanks is given for the crops, Chanukkah can be a time of thankfulness--marked by community service, family meals, and enjoying what you already have rather than thinking about getting more.
In our house, we'll mark the occasion with a big family meal--both sets of grandparents and our kids--where we'll serve latkes (I know, I know, we eat things fried in oil due to that damn story, but seriously, how can you have Chanukkah without my mother's latkes?). One tradition we're starting this year is to make a sweet starting with the first letter of every person's name at the table. For instance, as Melissa, I'll end up with some marshmallow concoction. Josh may be served a jellyroll cake or jam cookies. This is simply a way to give a nod to each guest at the table and say it with sweetness over how thankful we are to have them in our life.
On Chanukkah morning, I make baked sufganiot. Purists are probably cringing as they read that--sufganiot must be fried!--but my recipe enables me to make the dough the night before and then pop them from the refrigerator into the oven while I'm still half-asleep, serving warm jelly doughnuts to everyone in the house when they wake up.
Of course, we'll light the chanukkiah (that eight branched candelabra). Growing up, we each had our own chanukkiah to light. We're waiting until the twins are a little older to give them their own because we want it to be something they choose and love. Therefore, we'll light a family chanukkiah again this year every night during dinner.
When trying to make up your own traditions for the holiday, scour the Internet for ideas:
Genealogy had a post about Jewish traditions on Chanukkah and wrote: "It is common to hand out Hanukkah gelt, foil wrapped chocolate coins, and for children to play the dreidel game. When my sisters and I were young, Hanukkah was more about receiving gifts and who gets to light the most candles. The older I get, the more meaning it seems to have."
It's a Mommy-ful Life had ideas that could be applied to any holiday: "As a family, put up Christmas/Hanukkah decorations, decorate the tree or light the menorah as a family, making it an event with music and good food."
Jew and the Carrot presented a gingerbread sukkah (the house used during Succot) earlier this year that can easily be adapted into your Chanukkah celebration since the whole holiday is a nod to Succot.
And if you want to have an outing as a family, find a Latke-Hamantaschen Debate (a small warning--the ones that happen near college campus tend to be drunk-fests. If you're bringing your preschooler, aim for a local shul). This yearly tradition is held in most major cities in America and they can be very funny to watch.
What are your family Chanukkah traditions?
Melissa is the author of the infertility and pregnancy loss blog, Stirrup Queens and Sperm Palace Jesters. She keeps a categorized blogroll of more than 1500 infertility blogs and writes the daily Lost and Found and Connections Abound, a news source for the infertility blogosphere. Her infertility book, Navigating the Land of If, is forthcoming from Seal Press in Spring 2009. She is also the editor of the Creme de la Creme list, which is currently taking submissions for 2008.