Hopping Right Into Hanukkah

Smiling children in front of table with Hanukkah candlesHanukkah begins early this year – exactly two days after Thanksgiving {insert emoji with the sweat drop on its brow}. Still, it’s better than the time it began on Thanksgiving. That was fun.

Honestly though, after choosing to host Thanksgiving for my local extended family, I’m choosing not to sweat the eight days and nights of Hanukkah. Besides, it’s supposed to be the most fun Jewish holiday of the year. It celebrates the miracle of light, and it’s a holiday that is geared toward children. Kids don’t really care how hard you work on it as long as they get to open a present each night, and participate in some of the games and traditions that come along with the holiday.

My family has its own traditions and foods that have been passed along from generation to generation. Since starting a family of my own, I have found myself mimicking many of the things my mom did for me when I was little. They are tried and true ways of really getting into the holiday spirit, and they never get old.

Hanukkah is a Time to Have Fun

The primary game played on Hanukkah is called Dreidel. A dreidel is a spinning top that has four faces, with four different Hebrew letters from the alphabet: Nun, Gimmel, Hay, and Shin. These letters represent the expression: Nes gadol haya sham, which means “a great miracle happened there.” The letter that lands face up determines how much “gelt,” or money {usually chocolate coins} you get to take from the communal “pot.” Kids love trying to win the most coins. They also love perfecting their spinning technique, which can evolve into expert-level serious business if you practice enough.

Another activity my family really loves is to bake Hanukkah cookies. We make a simple sugar cookie recipe, but for some reason they are always so delicious. We have special Hanukkah cookie cutters in shapes like Stars of David, menorahs, and dreidels. The kids’ favorite part is the decorating. We buy lots of sprinkles, mostly in blues and whites {the main Hanukkah colors}, and go to town with making each cookie as beautiful as possible. A good cookie recipe can be found here, and some cute cookie cutters can be found here.

There is a newer tradition happening in our community {Meyerland/Bellaire area}, and this year we definitely plan to jump on the bandwagon. If you haven’t heard of Hanukkah House yet it’s worth checking out. My former neighbor goes all out decorating his house for Hanukkah every year, and each year, he adds new and improved ideas, props, music, and lights. Hanukkah House has its own Instagram account {@hanukkahhouse}, and my friend is often interviewed by the local new stations during this season. More recently, they have begun to partner with important Jewish nonprofit organizations like The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston’s PJ Library program to hand out free books to children who stop by the Hanukkah House. It’s definitely a sight to see, and one that you will want to keep going back to see because it is ever-evolving.

Let’s Eat

 Of course, it wouldn’t be a true Jewish holiday if delicious food wasn’t involved. The foods and meals associated with Hanukkah are my absolute favorites. We usually have at least one big Hanukkah dinner with local family, and the menu can be extensive. Some of the staples in our feast include matzo ball soup, slow roasted beef brisket, latkes {or potato pancakes}, and noodle kugel.

The dessert portion might be the best part, as it usually includes a variety of absolute deliciousness, including sufganiyot {jelly-filled Israeli doughnuts}, Hanukkah cookies, chocolate coins, and chocolate chip cake.

Basically, there’s no point in counting calories or shaming yourself for this meal. It’s one of those times that you just give in, enjoy, and remember that it only comes around once a year.

Small Gifts

Probably the best part of Hanukkah for any kid is opening a present eight nights in a row. It kind of feels like you won the jackpot, and you are being showered in the riches. I remember when I was growing up how much I anticipated each evening, wondering what I was going to open that night. The excitement was hard to contain, and it was so special to know that so many thoughts were catered for me, and me alone.

On the flip-side, gifting as a parent can feel overwhelming. I recently came across a meme that Houston Moms posted about a kid asking his mom for some more toothpaste. She said yes, but that it would have to count towards a Christmas gift. I couldn’t stop laughing because I feel that way every year when I am trying to dream up eight items to give to each of my kids. Ultimately, I don’t give eight big things. I chose one larger gift and all the others are small trinkets or things they need {maybe not toothpaste, but pajamas or slippers count}. Plus, grandparent’s and aunt’s and uncle’s gifts count on a few of the nights.

Regardless of the holidays you celebrate, I highly recommend trying out offering children small gifts throughout multiple days. It is a joy to watch their excitement build each day as they {not so patiently} await their prize, and to see their faces light up when they see what they got that time around.


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Emily Feinstein
Originally from Denver, Colorado, Emily moved to Sugar Land, Texas as a young girl. She studied journalism and psychology at UT Austin, and has experience in newspaper reporting, technical writing, and freelance writing. When she can, she works on writing her first-ever book. Somehow, Emily randomly ends up living abroad for short stints of time. In 2007, while attempting to heal a broken heart, she moved to Bilbao, Spain, and completed a six-month work-study program. Despite swearing off serious relationships, her husband, Oren, swooped in shortly after her return. They struggled with infertility, but were ultimately rewarded with their two precious children, Mayer {June 2013} and Juliet {April 2015}. In 2019, Emily’s family relocated to Montpellier, France, for Oren’s job. They managed to learn the language, forever spoiled their taste buds, and saw some really beautiful things. Now back in Houston, they are eating all the Tex-Mex and enjoying family.


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