Understanding Hanukkah in a Christmas Dominated World


-POPPeople give a lot of lip service to “winter holidays.” Especially in Oklahoma, that tends to be code for Christmas. And while I can definitely get behind a good light display and enjoy the carols the first day or two they’re played on the radio, I don’t celebrate Christmas. In my house, December (or sometimes November, depending on how the calendar falls) is Hanukkah time. No, Hanukkah is not “Jewish Christmas,” but it does have its own great reasons to celebrate.

Now a little background, in case your knowledge of the holiday is limited to the end cap of chocolate coins and candles at Target: Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights. It’s a celebration of the Maccabee’s victory over the Greeks and subsequent rededication of the Temple. In order to rededicate the Temple, oil was needed to light the menorah. There was enough for one day, but it miraculously burned for eight. If you want a musical history, I highly recommend The Maccabeats’ musical spoof of Taio Cruz’s Dynamite, called Candlelight. I dare you to ever again hear the original without thinking of latkes. The Maccabeats – Candlelight – Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, but its proximity to Christmas has elevated it in the Western world. As with any holiday, each family has their own special traditions. These are my favorites:

menorah-318641_640 (224 x 400)For each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, we gather to light the menorah. Once the sun has set we say blessings and light one candle for each night. Traditionally you should let the candles burn until they burn down on their own. My cat lost a big patch of tail fur to an unsupervised Hanukkah candle one year, so now we stay with the candles while they burn. In the midst of a busy life, spending an hour with your husband by candlelight for eight nights in a row feels like maybe the best part of the holiday. But don’t forget…

GIFTS! Exchanging gifts for Hanukkah is a relatively new tradition, and has grown in reaction to our Christmas-celebrating neighbors. Sorry to break it to you, but these are not big extravagant gifts for eight nights. Very often at least one of your gifts is socks. Regardless of the contents of the package, having something to open each night helps make the holiday feel special.

Remember the oil that was part of the Hanukkah miracle? That’s woven into modern Hanukkah celebrations by eating fried foods. The most popular are latkes (potato pancakes) or sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) but I like to eat outside the box sometimes and go out for falafel. I’ve also been known to excuse eating an entire bag of potato chips as “a Hanukkah celebration.” Your mileage may vary.

At least once over the course of the eight days, I like to challenge some friends to a game of dreidel. A dreidel is a four-sided top. Each side is labelled with a Hebrew letter that corresponds to an instruction. All players start with a stash of chocolate coins, nuts, or raisins and places one in the middle. We take turns spinning the dreidel, and await our fate when the dreidel falls. This tradition comes from times when Jews were forbidden to study Torah, the holy text. When they would gather to study someone would keep watch, and if a Greek authority figure was spotted everyone would pretend to be playing dreidel instead.

Since our first Hanukkah together, my husband and I have made a point to incorporate tzedakah into our Hanukkah celebrations. Literally translated from Hebrew, tzedakah means “justice,” but is usually used to mean “charity.” We allocate a set amount we will give each night of Hanukkah and give to eight different organizations throughout the celebration. Often we switch off nights making a vague suggestion such as “animal welfare” or “Israel” and then spend some time together researching which organization would best benefit from our donation. (Hey, we have some time to kill while those candles burn down.) This is my absolute favorite part of Hanukkah. It encourages giving and gets us talking about the things that matter to us.

What are your favorite traditions? Do they bear any similarity? Do you have a suggestion for a great charity for Hanukkah giving? I’d love to hear from you!


EmilyKarlovitz (150 x 225)Emily Karlovitz Perry is a vegan, distance runner, and pit bull advocate. She lives with her husband, Sam, and their dogs, Kim and Katie, in Oklahoma City. Sam and Emily own and operate the all plant-based Mim’s Bakery and are in the process of building a food truck.


  1. I’m excited because this will be our first year celebrating Hanukkah! Since learning about it, we were excited to add it to the holidays we celebrate. Granted, our family looks forward to remembering and celebrating any way God miraculously takes care of us. Happy Hanukkah!


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