Once I became a mother, I realized there are a lot of lessons I’ve learned from my own parents. One particular lesson—I’ll call it the Hanukkah lesson—has taken me two toddlers, and too many years, to learn.
Growing up, we would light our Hanukkah candles together as a family—my parents, brother, sister, and I. Then my mom would go to the window and twist the orange lightbulb in our electric hanukkiah to mark the new night that had begun.
When I left home for college, and then to eventually live on my own, my mom would always bring me one of those now-vintage orange electric menorahs during Hanukkah. “Put it in your window,” she’d say. I’d always roll my eyes and brush her off. Always. And thinking back, I don’t think I ever put it in my window. Why would I? Why did she even want me to? It’s not that I didn’t feel confident in my Judaism; I just didn’t know why I had to put something in my window to feel or show it any more than I already did.
And it is truly only now—as a mother with two toddlers, in the aftermath of Oct. 7, that I understand my mom’s reason for always doing that. She was telling me to shine my bright Jewish light. To show the world who I am, and what I believe in. And even more so, what I celebrate.
At this very moment, I’ve never felt more proud to be Jewish. After struggling for the last eight weeks to find my own light, I’m more determined than ever to turn that anger and frustration into joy during Hanukkah this year. I’m committed to making our children’s Jewish identity feel like a blessing, rather than a burden or something they need to hide. This isn’t to say that it’s all joy these days. At many moments, the gloom seeps in. I hear of friends telling their children that if anyone asks them if they’re Jewish, to say they aren’t. I’m haunted by the torn-down posters, and the spray-painted synagogues. But now, Hanukkah is coming, and I can already envision the bright lights peeking in through the darkness.
That’s why I’m planning to make this Hanukkah holiday the brightest one yet for my family. Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights, and light is what I will give them this year. I will not tell my kids to pretend they’re not Jewish. I will not dim their lights. I will help theirs shine brighter and brighter, even if the world around us goes dark.
Here are eight ideas I’m using to make this Hanukkah extra special for our family this year. That’s one for each night’s candle—wax or electric—plus one for the shamash.
1: Light the candles, every night
Hanukkah means dedication. The holiday lasts for eight nights, and each night we celebrate by lighting candles. In the past, I’ve been guilty of missing a night or two, whether it was for work events, or plans with friends. This year, I’m vowing to light the candles with my kids every single night. We’ll whip out all the menorahs we have, the one we got from my husband’s great aunt for our engagement, and the ones my children made in school. I’ll even take out the aluminum travel menorahs we got from people handing them out on a street corner. Our apartment will be filled with the light of the Hanukkah candles every single night this year.
2: Brighten your home, and decorate
I know it can be controversial to decorate for Hanukkah, but hear me out. My kids are still young toddlers, so whenever they see decorations for any holiday or birthday, they jump for joy. The pumpkins that line our windowsill during Halloween, and the Happy Birthday banners hung the week of their birthday make our apartment feel festive and exciting for our children.
I’ve never decorated for Hanukkah before, but this year, when I entered Target for my annual Black Friday shopping trip, I gasped when I saw an entire aisle dedicated to Hanukkah decorations and tchotchkes. Had this always existed? Had I never seen it before? Who knows! I filled up my shopping cart quickly, grabbing all the goodies I’d never seen (or paid attention to) before. I grabbed the Hanukkah cookie-making kit, the felt Happy Hanukkah banner, and yes, I even got my children matching Hanukkah pajamas.
We always go for walks to see the beautiful Christmas lights in our neighborhood each year. I watch as my children’s eyes light up by the sparkling stars, and tall, lit-up trees. Us decorating for Hanukkah isn’t a way for me to compete with that, at all. My kids know what holiday our family celebrates, and what we do and don’t do. (We don’t have a Christmas tree, or a Hanukkah bush if you were wondering.) I’m not sure if we’ll put our vintage electric menorah in the window (and I’m definitely not telling you to do that). For us, decorating is just a way to feel festive at home during this Hanukkah holiday, to remind us every day how beautiful and exciting our traditions and holidays are.
3. Get creative with gift giving
Let me preface this by saying I’m not encouraging anyone to buy into consumption culture, and of course you should stay within your spending means. For us, I use Hanukkah as a special occasion for my children to really think about what it is they want for gifts, and what they’d like to gift each other. We plan to clean out our toy bins and donate items we no longer need, and we plan to buy and send gifts to displaced children in Israel. We may even make some gifts for family members. It’s a time to think about the wants and needs of others, to teach about generosity, and to think about how we can make a difference and share our joy.
However you feel comfortable, gift giving and receiving can be yet another exciting, celebratory aspect of the Hanukkah holiday.
4. Cook special Hanukkah dishes with your children
Cooking is always a wonderful way for me to show my children our Jewish food traditions, and tell them family stories from when I was a kid (which they love hearing). It’s also a beautiful intergenerational activity that warms my heart.
So whether I’m attempting to fry up homemade sufganiyot, or buying premade latkes at Trader Joe’s and plopping sour cream on top, I plan to cook, or at least “prepare” some Hanukkah dishes this year. And even though it’s hectic, and usually creates a huge mess, I plan on involving my children.
I’m going to embrace the chaos. While I may experiment with something new like baking Hanukkah cookies, I’ll definitely try my hand at recreating a family recipe: my mother’s latkes. I hope to have my mom on FaceTime, or maybe even at our apartment while we cook together, so she can guide us through the steps while my children show off their pride in their cooking skills. I know we’ll have fun doing this together, and I’m promising myself we won’t let ourselves get upset if our recipes don’t come out as good as we would have liked.
5. Invite your friends, especially your friends who don’t celebrate Hanukkah
I’ve written before about the beauty of sharing holidays with friends of different religions. And if there was ever a holiday our friends would enjoy, the one where we eat fried foods, light candles, and spin dreidels may be the perfect one.
Since my kids are little, and go to bed early, it can feel really challenging to have a meaningful Hanukkah experience every night. It often feels easier to just rush through the motions of lighting, singing, and eating. But this year, I’m going to push myself out of my comfort zone to make sure our family celebrates with others. I look forward to my children showing their friends and family our Hanukkah traditions, and I can’t wait for them to learn about the traditions of others. Joining in Jewish ritual with our community gives my children such a strong sense of pride. And while they’ll definitely grow out of the Paw Patrol and Gabby’s Dollhouse toys they’re about to get, it’s these moments—the experiences and memories we create with others are what they’ll remember.
6. Tell your kids the true story of Hanukkah
In our home, the anticipation of Hanukkah starts early. Usually, a few weeks before Thanksgiving is when I take out all of our Hanukkah books and start including them in our bedtime story rotation. Over the years, we’ve gathered a bunch of wonderful holiday stories through PJ Library. And while my children love reading exciting stories about Curious George’s Hanukkah adventures, my kids are growing more and more curious, and are constantly asking “Why?” about everything. Recently, while we were reading Hanukkah at Monica’s, my daughter asked, “Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?” And that’s when I realized that while she adores her cute books about dreidels and latkes, she never learned the actual story of Hanukkah. At that moment, I realized that while I know the Hanukkah story, I wasn’t exactly sure how to explain it in an age-appropriate way to my preschool-age kids. “I’ll get back to you tomorrow,” I said.
The next morning, I searched through our Hanukkah book selection, and lo and behold, our most recent addition from PJ Library, Hanukkah in Little Havana, includes the story of Hanukkah on the first page. The next night, I read it to them, and watched as their little eyes perked up as we talked about the miracle of one tiny jar of oil lasting for eight days. We talked about the concept of pride, and resistance, which are more important than ever right now. They still asked “Why?” after every few sentences, but I was so thankful to have a resource to go back to.
7. Go all out and celebrate
Since Oct. 7, I’ve been in a fog. I try as hard as possible to pull it together, smile, and be happy when I’m with my children, but it’s not always easy. Whether it’s being glued to the news, or feeling a general sense of sadness, my kids know I haven’t been myself. They’re too young to really comprehend what’s happening in the world, which probably makes it even more confusing for them.
This year, I’m vowing to turn it around come Dec. 7 (the first night of Hanukkah) and celebrate. I’ll take a conscious break from constantly reading the news, and focus on lightening my mood. Whether it’s singing a Hanukkah song, having our families and friends over, or throwing a 10-minute mini Hanukkah “party” with just the four of us, we are going to smile, indulge, and celebrate this beautiful holiday each night.
8. Create a Hanukkah experience that becomes your tradition
My children are very excited by, and focused on, the number eight this year. I think it’s mostly because they think they’ll be getting eight presents—one for each night of Hanukkah. To help them not just focus on material gifts that they’ll eventually grow out of, this year I asked my kids if we should replace one night of gifts with a special experience as a family. The answer was an astounding “Yes!”
I was envisioning an exciting outing. Maybe a visit to the theater, or maybe a trip to a special restaurant. But when I asked my children what they wanted to do, they said they’d like to put on a special Hanukkah talent show where they get to show off all of their talents and Hanukkah tunes they’ve been learning at school. I find myself looking forward to this Hanukkah activity more than all others.
Shamash: The bonus light
Finally, in honor of the shamash, the light that lights all others, yet keeps burning just as long, I hope we can all be the light for our children and focus on the miracles.
I’m not one to tell others what to do, but on this holiday I hope we all remember the miracles that have happened, and pray for miracles to come. I hope we talk about our wishes and hopes for our children, for themselves, and for the future of all of us to live happy, peaceful lives.
I hope we all find some moments of joy. I hope you all shine your lights so bright that your kids are exhilarated by being Jewish. Shine your lights so bright that the world can’t help but see it. And shine your light so bright that you know exactly who you are, and why you’re proud to be Jewish right now.
Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.