Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights


The Jewish festival year is full of beautiful and deeply spiritual celebrations, each one filled with history, symbolism, and hope. Part of my family is Jewish, so I’ve been celebrating the Jewish holidays with them for the past ten years, and I love bringing these traditions to my children as well. Many Waldorf families study the stories of the Hebrew bible as an important part of the third grade year, and for non-Jewish families, following the festival calendar that year as well can really bring the study of Jewish history and culture alive.


Hanukkah is also called the Festival of Lights - it’s a joyful celebration of an ancient miracle, the survival of the Jewish people, and religious freedom. Its history is recorded in 1 and 2 Maccabees, the writings of Josephus, and later rabbinical writings but is not part of the more ancient Hebrew bible. Hanukkah is one of the minor festivals and the most recent to be added to the calendar, but also one of the most beloved celebrations for children. And as is so often the case, it grew out of an even more ancient mid-winter celebration of the returning of the light.

In 200 BCE Syria won a battle with Egypt and the ancient land of Judea (including the city of Jerusalem) became part of the Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) empire. But it wasn’t until 167 BCE, when Antiochus IV came to the throne, that Judaism was outlawed. At that time the temple in Jerusalem was looted, and the people of Judea were forced to disobey their own laws and worship Zeus. In a nearby village a high priest named Mattathias revolted, killed a local army captain, and took his five sons and a growing group of followers into hiding in the nearby mountains. Over time they amassed a small army known as the Maccabees and led a successful revolt.

In the winter of 165 BCE the Maccabees defeated the Syrians and retook Jerusalem. They found that the temple had been defiled (it was used for worship of the Greek gods, including sacrifices of pigs and other things counter to Jewish religious law). The Maccabeans re-dedicated the temple and declared a celebratory festival to begin on the 25th day of Kislev (this was already the time of a joyful mid-winter festival). But when they went to light the lamp with holy oil that was meant to burn continuously at the altar, they found there was only enough oil to burn for one day. They decided to light the lamp anyway, and the oil miraculously lasted for eight whole days (enough time to make more holy oil). This was the Miracle of Lights, which is commemorated by the eight days of Hanukkah.

How to Celebrate

The Hanukkah menorah has spaces for 9 candles - one for each of the nights and one to light all the others (the shamash). Each night a new candle is added (from right to left) and then they are lit with the shamash (from left to right) at sundown and allowed to burn all the way down undisturbed (this takes an hour or so). If you are celebrating this with your third grader, be sure to let your child figure out how many candles you need (2+3+4….+9) for the festival!

The prayer we say while lighting the candles goes like this:

Barukh atah Adonei, Eloheinu, melech ha’olam, Asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu L’had’lik neir shel Chanukah. Amein.

Blessed are you oh Lord our God Who has commanded us To light the lights of Chanukah. Amen.

I recorded the prayer in Hebrew for you, because I know it might look intimidating but it is fun to learn, but please understand I don't speak Hebrew, so this is just my best attempt based on how my family speaks this prayer!

Barukh Atah Adonei

Then it’s time for food, songs, games, and gifts! The traditional gift for children is Hanukkah gelt - coins, or more recently chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. In the past few decades Hanukkah has become a bigger gift-giving occasion (at least in America, where we live) and children often receive a gift each night.

Our favorite Hanukkah song goes like this:

Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah, we’ll light the menorah, Let’s have a party, we’ll all dance the horah, Gather ‘round the table, we’ll give you a treat, Dreidels to play with, latkes to eat, And while we are playing, the candles are burning low, One for each night, they shed a sweet light, To remind us of days long ago, One for each night, they shed a sweet light, To remind us of days long ago.

Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah

It’s traditional to eat food fried in oil during Hanukkah, and many families enjoy latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly-filled doughnuts. Our family has a big special dinner the first night of Hanukkah with many of our favorite Jewish foods (this year will be interesting because the very next day is Thanksgiving!).

Another Hanukkah tradition is to play dreidel. The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew character on each side. The letters stand for “A great miracle happened there.” According to tradition, when people were forbidden to study the Torah (Hebrew scriptures) under the rule of Antiochus, they would gather for study anyway, but if there was any danger of discovery they would pretend to be playing a gambling game with the dreidel. This is a simple game that children can play (you can use pennies, raisins, etc.) and full directions can be found here.

Further resources

If you would like to learn more about the Jewish festivals, here are some great resources:

Celebrate:  Stories of the Jewish Holidays - This book has stories for eight Jewish festivals which I think would be appropriate for third graders (I modify the stories quite a lot for my kindergarten-aged children), as well as some background on how to celebrate, crafts, and recipes.

The Children’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen - Highly recommended!

Happy Hanukkah!