What to Give: Guide to Multicultural Holiday Celebrations

Hanukkah (or Chanukah)

Hanukkah is perhaps the most ancient year-end holiday. It is the Jewish festival of lights, commemorating a Jewish victory in 164 B.C. In ancient Syria, Greeks, Jews and Arabs lived tensely together. Jews revolted against Syrian rule and Greek intimidation. At the center of the region was a temple, and control of it provided both religious significance and symbolic power. During the Jewish rebellion, led by Mattathias and then his son Judah Maccabee, the Jews captured the temple at Jerusalem.

The Greeks had erected a shrine to their god, Zeus, in the temple, a sacrilegious act that led to the Jewish rebellion. To purify and consecrate it once more, the Jews sought to burn ritual oil. In the years-long war, their oil had been destroyed. Only one vial was left, enough to last one night. Amazingly, the oil burned for eight nights, giving the Jews enough time to make more oil and signifying God’s blessing on them.

Hanukkah commemorates the oil’s miraculous burning, and the menorah, the candelabra that holds nine candles, plays a central role in the eight-night-long celebration. A shamash (servant) candle held in the middle of the menorah is used to light the first candle, placed in the far right slot of the menorah. Blessings and thanks are uttered in prayer, and on each successive night a new candle is placed in the menorah (from right to left) and lit with the shamash candle (from left to right). Religiously, Hanukkah isn’t of great importance to the Jews. Like Kwanzaa, it’s a time to celebrate community and give thanks.

An invitation to a Hanukkah party means you can expect good food and warm feelings. If you’d like to bring a gift for your hosts, jelly-filled sugar doughnuts are a good idea. If you prepare these doughnuts, called sufganiot, be sure to use a kosher recipe, using kosher ingredients (Jewish law includes some dietary restrictions). It’s a good idea that any food you bring should be certified kosher, out of respect to Jewish observances. Look for the kosher symbol on food items or ingredients. Latkes, a type of fried potato pancakes, are also a traditional food you may want to bring as a gift.

You may also consider bringing gifts for your host’s children. While any token of gratitude for your invitation will be gladly accepted, you may want to observe tradition with Jewish-themed gifts, like a dreidel or gelt. A dreidel is a spinning top with ancient origins that taught Jewish youth the Torah under the nose of Greeks rule. The gift of gelt (money) shouldn't break your account; instead, you can pick up chocolate coins as a present, a Jewish tradition.