Want to explain Hanukkah to your children? Check out our guide

Each year, I offer this primer on explaining Hanukkah to your kids.

The Villalpando family gathers on the first night of Hannukah this year to light the hanukkiah.  Credit: Ava Villalpando

The Villalpando family gathered on the first night of Hannukah last year to light the hanukkiah.
Credit: Ava Villalpando

How long does Hanukkah last?

This year, Hanukkah, started on Saturday night (Christmas Eve to our Christian friends) and goes through Saturday night. It’s eight nights total.

Why does Hanukkah always seem to skip around the month of December?

Hanukkah follows the Hebrew calendar. It’s always the 25th day of the month of Kislev. Because the Hebrew calendar is lunar based and includes leap months instead of leap years, it doesn’t line up with the solar calendar the secular world uses, but in general Hanukkah usually starts sometime in the month of December. Occasionally it starts as early as the end of November and goes as late as the first week of January. In 2013, it just happened  that the first day was Thanksgiving, creating the new holiday of “Thanksgivukkah.” This year, the first day was Christmas, the first night was Christmas Eve, but that’s just a coincidence.

What’s the story?

It’s a war story that’s been romanticized. Judah Maccabee and his four brothers led a revolt against the Assyrian Greeks, who had taken over Jerusalem in the second century BCE. The Maccabees won and regained control of the Temple. It had been trashed. They cleaned it up and went to light the ritual menorah lamp but could only find enough oil to last one night. The miracle was that it lasted eight nights, giving the Maccabees enough time to make more oil. We celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights because of this story.

Is it Hanukkah or Chanukah?

It’s Hebrew, so the correct spelling is in Hebrew letters. There are many transliterations. None of them are wrong or right.

Is Hanukkah a major holiday?

Nope. Yom Kippur and Passover are much more important. Hanukkah only became a big deal in the last century as Jews and Christians lived side by side, and Jewish children felt left out. (But don’t tell that to any Jewish children; they love this holiday.)

What do you do with a menorah?

Benjamin Villalpando, 15, lights the Hanukkiah. Rob Villalpando/American-Statesman

Benjamin Villalpando, 15, lights the Hanukkiah this year on the first night of Hanukkah. Rob Villalpando/American-Statesman

In the modern tradition, each night a special menorah for Hanukkah called a Hanukkiah is lit. The Hanukkiah holds nine candles, one for each night, and the Shamash, a helper candle that lights the other candles. On the first night, you light the Shamash first, and one candle on the far right side of the Hanukkiah. Each night you add a candle and light the newest candle first, moving left to right.

There are blessings in Hebrew or English to be said:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, she-asah nisim laavoteinu v’imoteinu bayamim hahaeim baz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

For first night only: Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.

What about presents?

Each family has a different tradition, but the most common is kids get a present a night for eight nights. The presents only happen after lighting the menorah.

Is there a Hanukkah Harry?

No, that’s a “Saturday Night Live” skit. Kids receive presents from their parents, grandparents, friends, etc.

Is there a Hanukkah bush?

Not really, but some Jewish families do decide to have a small tree because they want a tree like their Christian friends.

What do you eat?

This year, we made traditional potato latkes on the first night of Hanukkah. Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman

This year, we made traditional potato latkes on the first night of Hanukkah. Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman

Well, on Hanukkah, it’s all about the oil. There are two traditional foods. The first is sufganiyot, which are jelly doughnuts. The second is latkes, potato pancakes. You mix grated potatoes, diced onions, salt and pepper together, and add egg and matzo meal (or flour) until you can form a patty. Fry in a frying pan with about an 1/8 inch of oil in it. Tip: Use shredded hashbrowns to skip the grating.

Need something more challenging. Try latkes made out of sweet potatoes, zucchini or squash, or skip the latkes and make sufganiyot. Here is our favorite recipe:

Sufganiyot (Israeli Jelly Doughnuts)

1 (1/4 ounce) package of active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

1/4 cup warm water

1/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup milk

6 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine, softened

3 large egg yolks

1 teaspoon table salt

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

5 cups vegetable oil

1 cup jelly

Confectioner’s’ sugar or granulated sugar for dusting

Dissolve the yeast in the water. Stir in 1 teaspoon of sugar and let stand until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes. Blend in the milk, remaining sugar, butter, egg yolks, salt, nutmeg and 2 cups flour. Beat in enough of the remaining flour to make a smooth, soft dough.

Cover and let rise until double in bulk, about 1 1/4 hours.

Punch down the dough. Fold over and press together several times. Let stand for 10 minutes. Roll out the dough 1/4 inch-thick. Cut out 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-inch rounds. Place in a single layer on a lightly floured surface. Cover and let rise until double in bulk, about 1 hour.

Heat at least 2 inches of oil over medium heat to 375 degrees. You can use a fryer or a large saucepan.

Using an oiled spatula, carefully lift the doughnuts and drop them, top side down into the oil. Fry 3 or 4three or four at a time without crowding the pan, turning once, until golden brown on all sides, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. Remove with a wire mesh skimmer or tongs and drain on a wire rack.

To fill with jelly, pierce one end of each doughnut with a thin knife. Place jelly in a cookie press or a pastry bag fitted with a 1/4-inch hole or nozzle tip and pipe through the slit. You can also use a small spoon. Roll the doughnuts in sugar. Yields 16 medium doughnuts.

— “The World of Jewish Desserts” by Gil Marks

Of course, we also like to hit the prepared doughnut circuit, too. This year, we’re in Pittsburgh, so we hit Peace, Love and Little Donuts, which offers everything skips the plain Jane doughnuts and goes for unusual ones like maple bacon (so not Kosher) and salted chocolate.

What do you play?

Dreidel is the most common game. Each side of the dreidel has a Hebrew letter that stands for the phrase: Nes Gadol Haya Sham (A great miracle happened there). You can play with as many players as you want. Each player should start with the same number of pennies, M&Ms, raisins or the traditional chocolate coins called gelt. Each player puts one penny into the pot in the middle. You take turns rolling the dreidel. If it lands on a Nun (which looks like a blocky backward C) you get none of the pot. If you land on a Gimmel (which looks like a blocky backward C with a tail), you get all of the pot. If you land on a Hay (which looks like an upside down L with a small line to one side), you get half of the pot. If you land on a Shin (which looks like a W), you put one penny into the pot. You keep playing until someone has all of the pennies or until it’s time for bed.

Happy Hanukkah!