A Christian Celebration of Hanukkah

When my 1st grade son Eli came to me in early December asking if we could please, please, please celebrate Hanukkah this year, I was surprised, and a little confused.

Turns out his class had been learning about the holiday at school, and he was fascinated by the menorah, the candles, and the dreidel game.

Thinking I knew what his real motives were, I guessed to myself, “This is just about 8 days of presents, isn’t it?!” But when I questioned him as to what he knew and understood about Hanukkah, this was his reply. And I quote:

Hanukkah is important to Jewish people because of a Jewish place. It lasts 8 days, and you use a menorah and light a candle on each day. The middle candle is the “helper candle.” You eat potato pancakes and donuts. You play with dreidels, it’s kind of like playing dice. You use money in the game with the dreidels. They eat chocolate coins, too.

Honestly, I didn’t even know at the time if what he was saying was accurate; all I noticed was that he didn’t say a word about gifts. When I casually played dumb and said, “I wonder if they do gifts like we do at Christmas?,” he just shrugged his shoulders and said “I dunno.”

Expecting Eli’s shiny object syndrome to draw his attention elsewhere, I didn’t think more about Hanukkah. Until he came back to me about it the next day. And the next day. His pleas were so sincere, and I could tell his interest was genuine. “But we’re not Jewish!,” I said. I got a blank stare in return. “So?” he eventually asked.

Why did I hesitate? For starters, I thought it might seem offensive. Like Christmas isn’t enough for us as Christians, now we have to co-opt Hanukkah? Who do religious traditions belong to, anyway? Only the observant? Or can the curious and respectful participate as well? I also worried it might be offensive if we did something “wrong” in our observance of Hanukkah, or adapted any of it to our circumstances.

But Eli persisted, and he rarely persists in anything unless it’s important to him. And ultimately, I would rather satisfy his curiosity, help my family learn something new (and maybe gain some understanding in the process) than worry about offending an unknown jury.

So…I bought a menorah, candles, and dreidel game. I laugh at myself now for wondering why on earth they sent us so many candles when of course we’d only need 9, right? I understand now that they’re meant to only burn for an hour or so – and boy, do they burn bright! So pretty. But yes, new candles every night.

first night of hanukkah

On our first night of Hanukkah.

I also had to approach the Hanukkah blessings thoughtfully, because in our church (we are Mormon), we are careful about repetitious prayer. It’s used sparingly in our practices, and I felt just the slightest bit unsure of how to proceed. So, instead of us saying them, I played a recording of the blessings every night while we lit the candles. It was very interesting to hear them sung, and I felt good that it was done appropriately in Hebrew. We did read the translation as a family, so we could understand the context.

The first night of Hanukkah, we talked through the traditions, history and religious significance of the holiday with Eli. This was a fantastic starting point for several fascinating discussions we had throughout the week. Such as…

  • regarding the center candle – the shamash (“helper” or “servant”): how can we be helpers to others? How can we serve them and light the way?
  • regarding the Maccabees: how can we stay faithful despite adversity or persecution?
  • regarding the re-dedication of the temple: how can we rid ourselves of bad influences around us and rededicated ourselves to God?
  • regarding the oil: how do we refill our faith and strength in God?

I read through several blog posts from other Christians celebrating Hanukkah, and many of them worked Christ into their conversations and observance of the holiday. For me (and this is just me), I didn’t feel that was appropriate. I wanted to honor the intention of Hanukkah as much as possible, while still observing the many existing similarities between our faiths. I felt that was entirely possible without introducing Christ into the conversation (ie: comparing the light of the menorah to the light of Christ). Think of it as a religious Venn diagram, if you will – two circles, overlapping, one the Jewish faith, one the Christian faith. We decided to stick with the area in the center shared by the two circles. It’s what worked for us.

As for other traditions, our family kind of fell in love with the dreidel game. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be such a raucous event, but we got pretty loud waiting for the dreidel to stop spinning and tell us our fate. We played with M&Ms instead of coins, but my guess is you can use anything you want. I also cooked up some latkes, using the cheater method of frozen hashbrowns. Add some flour, eggs, onions, and salt, and they were delicious (especially with a little sour cream on top).

I’ve been surprised at how various members of our family have taken the initiative to gather everyone to light the candles each night. What started with Eli has touched every one of us, and I think has created some special memories for our family. I’m not sure if and how we will celebrate next year; I’m still trying to settle in to the feeling that we did it well enough and respectfully enough this year. But it has certainly been an experience to cherish, and I’m grateful for it!