What Is Hanukkah? Sharing in the spirit of a joyous Jewish holiday

By Sara Quenzer on October 11th, 2023
Historyof Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a time for celebrations that thrive in food, family, friends and faith. But with Jewish culture being so vast, everyone celebrates the holiday a little differently.

So we interviewed three Jewish people about their Hanukkah celebrations and traditions: Ashley D., a Hallmark editor, Lauren G., a Hallmark editorial director and soon-to-be mom of two, and Debi L., Associate Vice President of Community Impact at Jewish youth organization BBYO and a St. Louis mom.

Whether you’re looking for fun ways to celebrate Hanukkah with your loved ones—beyond the favourite traditions of playing dreidel and eating latkes—or trying to learn more about the eight-day Festival of Lights, we got you.

Inspired? Create and share by tagging @Hallmark_Canada.

Historyof Hanukkah

Looking for ideas or information about a specific part of the Hanukkah celebration? Jump right to it using the links below!


First, some quick facts on the origin, spelling and timing of Hanukkah

For those not already in the know, Hanukkah—also spelled as “Chanukah” and “Hannuka,” as there isn’t a “right” way to translate the Hebrew sounds into English—began in 164 B.C.E. after a group of Jews known as the Maccabees rose up against invading Syrian-Greeks to reclaim their Temple in Jerusalem and resist religious and political oppression.

Hanukkah starts on the 25th day of Kislev on the Jewish calendar. This is always a different date in the Western calendar, so it can start in November or December and can sometimes go into January. Fun fact: The next time Hanukkah starts in November, it will be 2032!

Hanukkah 2023: Thursday, December 7 – Friday, December 15

Hanukkah 2024: Wednesday, December 25 – Thursday, January 2

More basics about Hanukkah

Traditional Hanukkah celebrations include frying food in oil, playing dreidel, singing songs, and, of course, lighting the hanukkiah. The hanukkiah is a type of menorah with nine candle holders—one of which is the shamash. The shamash is used to light the other eight candles.

Hanukkah recipes and food

“Food is something that really brings people together, so I think Hanukkah is an extension and a celebration of that.” – Ashley D.

From latkes (potato pancakes) to sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), delicious fried food is a Hanukkah staple. Latkes can be made from scratch or using grocery store hashbrowns, depending on your cooking abilities and time constraints.

The traditional latke recipe is delicious, but the dynamic potato dish also lends itself well to some fun experimentation with potato bases and different toppings. Our sweet potato latkes offer a yummy alternative, and the internet is full of different ideas for dressing your latkes. A quick search can lead you to salmon latkes, BBQ latkes, hummus latkes and more.

Why all the fried food?

The celebration of Hanukkah signifies the miracle that occurred after the Temple was reclaimed. To cleanse the temple, the Jews needed to burn holy light, but they only had one night’s supply of oil. Miraculously, the small supply lasted for eight nights while new oil was purified.

This is why many popular traditional Hanukkah dishes like latkes and sufganiyot are fried in oil.

Beyond the traditional fried foods, every family has their own favourite recipes to incorporate, and not just because they’re tasty.

“We’ve now lost all of our grandparents after this past year and so now I’ve inherited all these recipes,” Lauren said. “I’m always looking for ways that I can incorporate a recipe or something food-related to honour the family.”

Your Hanukkah staples can honour recipes from your loved ones, they can simply be seasonal favourites, and they can be anything you care to customize. Lauren’s family makes matzo ball soup during the week of Hanukkah just because it’s so comforting when it’s cold outside.

She also loved blue and white candy canes growing up and currently ices cookies from a family recipe with blue and white frosting.

“It always felt special when something felt custom for Hanukkah,” Lauren said.

Looking for some more ideas? Check out our Hanukkah cookie recipe and our chocolate rugelach recipe.

The significance of blue and white

The most commonly cited reason why the colours blue and white are commonly used in American Hanukkah decorations because they are the two colours on Israel’s flag. However, these colours also have significance in Jewish culture and faith.

In 1864, Jewish poet Ludwig August Frankl wrote that blue and white are the colours of Judah—a great leader in the history of Israel. In addition, the colour blue is used on a traditional prayer shawl or tallit, while white is seen to represent peace and purity—not only in Judaism, but around the world.


Hanukkah family gatherings

“We don’t have to be at the synagogue to feel the strength of that community and that history and those traditions.” – Lauren G.

Getting everyone together for Hanukkah can be a little difficult, especially when most schools and offices plan their time off around Christmas. For Ashley, this sometimes means spending Hanukkah alone. But last year, she found she was still able to connect with loved ones virtually.

“Even though I was by myself in person, the act of lighting the menorah is something that ties a lot of us together,” Ashley said. “It was special in that it gave me time to reflect on times I did spend Hanukkah with my family—and how something as simple as lighting a menorah is something that connects us, whether we’re together or far apart.”

Lauren is able to see more family in person during Hanukkah, but not for all eight days. On the days when they can’t be together in person, they’ll often FaceTime as they light the menorah.

“You’re having to live your busy life,” Lauren said. “So you’re, like, running home to light the candles…it’s not always this super-focused thing, but all of a sudden you hit pause and you’re all together.”


Hanukkah activities and DIYs


A major activity on Hanukkah is playing Dreidel; a game featuring a spinning top and gelt, which often comes in the form of chocolate gold coins, but other tokens can be used. Lauren’s family used marbles, candy, or pennies for the kids, and bigger bills for the adults. Here’s how to play:

  • You need two or more players, plus a dreidel and gelt to divide evenly
  • To start the game, each player puts one token in the pot
  • Each player takes a turn spinning the dreidel; there are four Hebrew letters which will tell players what to do on their turn: Nun (do nothing), Hei (take half of the pot), Shin (add one token to the pot) and Gimmel (take the whole pot)
  • Whenever the pot is emptied, or there’s only one piece left, each player adds a token to the pot
  • After each player has had their turn, they add a token to the pot to start a new round
  • Players are out when they are out of tokens
  • The game ends when one player has all of the tokens

There are many different resources for adding a twist to the way you play. A quick search will lead you to a Dreidel board game, Speed Dreidel, “Staccabees,” ways to combine Dreidel with other popular board games, Dreidel with betting and more.

Debi’s family always had dreidels around “to see who could spin the longest,” but didn’t play very much. “We mostly played the actual game during Hebrew school,” she said.

Lauren’s family, however, loves playing the actual game. “My parents, brother and I are a big game night family as it is, and also naturally love making little bets with each other—over random trivia or history facts, etc.,” Lauren said. “So playing dreidel, which is in essence a gambling game, is something we have always enjoyed! Lots of friendly competition in our house, though witnesses have argued it’s not always that friendly.”

When it comes to the dreidels themselves, lots of families are collectors. “My mom collects dreidels of all kinds—from tiny plastic ones meant for kiddos to high-end sculpted ones meant for decor,” Lauren said. “Personally, I’ve forever been on the hunt for Hanukkah decor that feels ‘non-kid’—though now that I’m a mom, I’m all about the kid-friendly craft projects and decor, too!”

How Dreidel is tied to Hanukkah

“Hanukkah” comes from the Hebrew word “hinuch” which translates to “to teach.” This is significant because of the Jews’ commitment to their faith—Dreidel was invented as a distraction method so they could stealthily read scripture when Syrian-Greek soldiers were around. However, the word “Hanukkah” itself means “dedication.”

DIY Hanukkah projects for kids

Kaila S., a 25-year-old teacher who taught at Jewish private schools Kadima Day School and Ilan Ramon Day School for two years, shared some Hanukkah activities that proved popular in the classroom.

Hodgepodge menorahs

“For a first activity, families could collect recyclables (preferably nothing made of cardboard or paper) and they could create a handmade hanukkiah. Nuts—as in nuts and bolts—make great candle-holding equipment (especially if you use little birthday candles), and children could use Legos, building blocks, wood, clay, rocks, paint or tiles to create a base. An adult should handle the hot glue gun, but otherwise, let their creativity run wild with this craft.”

Clay and paper dreidels

“The students have the opportunity to play Dreidel throughout the holiday, and it is a great way to build comradery, respectful discourse, and counting skills!” Kaila said. “Many people choose to make dreidels out of paper or clay. I would suggest baking clay over air-dry clay, and children could paint the clay after. Crayola actually has a printable for making a 3D paper dreidel, which children could colour first, then cut out and assemble with a little bit of adult assistance.”

Assembly line latkes

“We would create an assembly line of latkes, and this can also be done at home. Children clean the potato and then use a cheese grater to carefully cut the potato into little chunks. Then they gather the chunks and add them to a bowl with eggs, seasoning and matzo meal. An adult will need to fry the latkes in oil and then serve.”

Gratitude gifting

“Hanukkah is a season of gift giving, and typically the children do all the receiving, so in class I like to do a giant art project for them to gift to their families,” Kaila said. “We create a calendar for the new year, and the children create art for each month. This is a great way to teach about seasons and other holidays throughout the year as well. This is a huge project, but any craft that allows children to be a part of the gift giving is a great way to teach gratitude.”


Hanukkah traditions

“Part of the joy of Hanukkah and being Jewish in general is that no two people celebrate the same way. But however we do, it brings us closer. That’s something that I’ve always appreciated—whether you are extremely religious or you simply light your menorah, give gifts and sing songs, it’s all great.” – Ashley D.

When it comes to celebrating, nothing takes centre stage more than lighting the menorah. Our interviewees all agreed that the act of lighting the menorah was one of the most special and community-building traditions of Hanukkah.

“Feeling the strength of your ancestors with you and your people with you…you know that all these other Jews are lighting these candles at the same time for the same reason,” Lauren said.

Lighting the menorah can look different for every family, too. Ashley’s late grandmother became nervous about lighting candles at her advanced age and living alone, so Ashley found her a battery-powered menorah to still be able to participate.

“It was meant for kids, but her just turning the lights on this little menorah and feeling connected is one of the last memories that I have of my grandma celebrating Hanukkah,” Ashley said. “It is extremely memorable to me.”

Lauren has a two-year-old daughter who uses a wooden menorah so she can safely participate in the fun before watching her parents light the candles.

“Jewish traditions and holidays have become even more meaningful and fun since becoming a mother,” Lauren said. “Introducing my little ones to my favourite traditions and stories and seeing the experience through your child’s eyes is a whole new kind of magic.”

Some families opt for everyone to light their own menorah, but Debi’s family took turns lighting candles based on who was the eldest.

“It was a big deal if you went to light the candle,” Debi said.

While the candles burn out, Debi’s family often sings together. Two of the most popular Hanukkah songs, beyond the traditional religious ones, are “Dreidel Song: I Have a Little Dreidel,” and “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.” Many different versions of both can be found online.

Want to sing along?

Then you’ll need to know the words! Here they are, just in case you’ve never known them or happen to need a refresher.

“Dreidel Song: I Have a Little Dreidel”

I have a little dreidel

I made it out of clay

And when it’s dry and ready

Oh dreidel, I shall play

Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel

I made you out of clay

And when you’re dry and ready

Oh Dreidel we shall play

Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel

I made you out of wood

And when you are all ready

I’ll play you when I could

Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel

I made you out of glass

And when you are all ready

I’ll play you on the grass

Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel

I made you out of gold

And when you are all ready

I’ll play you in the cold

“Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah”

Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,

Come light the menorah

Let’s have a party,

we’ll all dance the Horah

Gather round the table,

we’ll give you a treat

Driedels (or “sevivon”) to play with

and latkes to eat

And while we are playing,

the candles are burning low (or “bright”)

One for each night,

they shed a sweet light,

to remind us of days (or “years”) long ago


Hanukkah gifts

Gelt is one of the most traditional Hanukkah gifts, but families often take the opportunity to give each other more. Whether in the form of meaningful individual presents or cute group ones, there are lots of creative ways to get your gift on.

One of Lauren’s favourite gifts was a Roald Dahl book set from her aunt and uncle.

“That’s not a Hanukkah-themed thing, but it was such a meaningful gift that it always stuck out for me…and then when my daughter was born, they gave that gift set to my daughter for Hanukkah, which was really sweet,” Lauren said.

Debi’s family will buy their kids matching Hanukkah clothes—from pajamas to matching t-shirts. There’s also typically a group gift for the kids.

“When we were really young, my aunt would send us all matching Hanukkah bears,” Debi said. “Giving everybody the same present is also really kind of fun—everybody’s opening the same thing, and you take a big picture with everybody together.”

When it comes to gifting for the adults, presents can be exchanged amongst everyone, or some families opt for a white elephant situation. Debi’s family also enjoys wrapping their gifts in weird boxes to throw each other off when it comes to guessing presents.

“One year, I got a Beanie Baby wrapped in a thermostat box,” Debi said.

Food can also become part of the gift-giving. Debi’s grandma makes mandelbrot (a cookie similar to biscotti), and every year they’re the last gifts passed out to the whole family.

“She always puts weird tchotchkes in the bags with the cookies,” Debi said. “She’s individually made and wrapped every single one.”

Even though it happens every year, Debi’s family always has a big reaction to the mandelbrot because they know Grandma loves it so much.

Looking for more Hanukkah gift ideas, or even theme nights? Look no further.

The goods on gelt

Some sources say the earliest mention of gelt happened in the 16th century. But Eastern European Jews started regularly giving kids gelt for Hanukkah in the 19th century. By the 1920s, chocolate gelt was created and has remained extremely popular. Check out our recipe for homemade gelt here!


Hanukkah wishes

Sending Hanukkah cards is a great way to connect with other Jewish loved ones, especially if you live far away from one another.

“Many of my Jewish friends and family live in California, where I’m originally from. Sending a card is a great way to celebrate and connect during a time that is meaningful for all of us,” Ashley said. “There’s something about a personal message and the effort of sending something at all that makes a card so thoughtful during Hanukkah or really any important holiday to us.”

“I love hanging up all of the Hanukkah cards on my mantel during the holiday season especially when they have family photos,” Debi said. “I also really love sending them to my work colleagues who also celebrate.”

Lots of Jewish folks also really appreciate Hanukkah cards from non-Jewish friends.

“The couple of Hanukkah cards that I’ve been sent by non-Jewish people have been really meaningful to me,” Ashley said. “When people take time out of their day to think about me and send me a card related to this holiday they don’t celebrate but they know is important to me, it’s really special.”

Lauren feels the same way.

“I always appreciate a Hanukkah card because people have to go out of their way to send them, and usually I’m just getting them from my inner circle of Jewish family and friends,” she said. “And so, if somebody who isn’t Jewish actually sends one, it means so much. I keep every Hanukkah card.”

Sending a card to a Jewish friend or loved one?

There are a number of ways to say “happy Hanukkah,” some of the most traditional being:

  • “Hanukkah Sameach!” (meaning “Happy Hanukkah!”)
  • “Chag Sameach!” (meaning “Happy Holiday!”)
  • “Chag Urim Sameach!” (meaning “Happy Festival of Lights!”)

For more ways to wish your family and friends a Happy Hanukkah, check out our article on what to write in a Hanukkah card.

We hope this article has given you a few new ideas for how to celebrate Hanukkah with your loved ones. Hanukkah Sameach!