How to learn about and celebrate Hanukkah

Whether you’re Jewish or want to teach your students more about this popular observance, we unpack the holiday and list activities and worksheets that you can use today!

Although it doesn’t rank among the most important of the Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is one of the most widely observed Jewish celebrations. This eight-day “Festival of Lights” illuminates what is, for many in the northern hemisphere, the darkest, coldest season of the year.

Hanukkah brings light, joy, and warmth to our homes and communities.  The holiday’s central ritual of lighting candles of a menorah each day literally brings light to the darkness.  Metaphorically, the presence of light is reflected in an emphasis on charitable donations and, for some Jews, a commitment to social action and social justice.

What are the origins of Hanukkah?

Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah) recalls the second-century BC victory of a small group of Jewish rebels (led by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, known together as “the Maccabees”) over the armies of the Seleucid Empire.  The Maccabees seized control of Judea and founded the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled for over 100 years.

Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew, because the major accomplishment of the Maccabees was a rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, which for many years had been used for the worship of Persian and Greek deities.  The Maccabees were also responsible for expanding the boundaries of Judea and reducing the influence of what they considered pagan Hellenism.

The miracle of Hanukkah, which is reflected in the lighting of candles and eating foods prepared in oil, comes from the story that when the Maccabees rescued the Temple from the Seleucids, they could only find one small cruse of oil that bore the seal of the priests.  All the others had been profaned.  There was only enough oil to light the Temple’s menorah for one day.  Instead, by a miracle, the oil lasted eight days and nights – long enough for the priests to prepare and consecrate new oil.

Why does the date of Hanukkah change every year?

Hanukkah always starts at sundown on the 25th day of the month of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar.  All days on the Jewish calendar start at nightfall.  The secular date of Hanukkah changes every year because the Hebrew calendar is based on the lunar cycle.  Hanukkah can occur anytime between November 28th and December 26th.  This year it begins at sunset on December 10, 2020.  In 2021, Hanukkah begins on the evening of November 28.  The annual festival of lights happens in 2022 starting on December 18.

Free and Pro Hanukkah worksheets and activities

Help Teaching has surveyed many Hanukkah-related educational resources for you to download and use.  Here are the highlights:

Our own Hanukkah-themed resources include: 

There are many others listed in our Winter Holidays worksheet collection that cover ELA, math, sciences, games and puzzles, and more.

Fun Hanukkah activities

Hanukkah is a special time to enjoy with friends and family, and fun games and activities are part of the tradition. 

  • Hanukkah Mad Lib: Children will have fun spinning the dreidel and doing some Hanukkah Mad Libs which will provide hours of laughs while helping kids expand their knowledge of parts of speech.  If you don’t want to buy the book, make your own Mad Libs, or try this free one from My Jewish Learning.
  • Listen and Learn: Older children and adults will enjoy listening to stories of the season on “Hanukkah Lights” from National Public Radio carried on stations across the country.  For more than 15 years, NPR has offered original stories inspired by the Jewish festival of lights. Hosted by NPR’s Susan Stamberg, and Murray Horwitz, each year Hanukkah Lights marks the age-old Jewish celebration with contemporary fiction. Previous years’ episodes are available free and on-demand.
  • Get cooking: Food is a delicious part of Hanukkah. Holiday treats include latkes, sufganiyot, bimuelos (fried dough puffs) and keftes de prasas (leek patties). You and your kids will enjoy watching the PBS program “Sara’s Weeknight Meals: Jewish Holidays” airing on many stations across the country.  Find out where and when or watch on YouTube. Sara Moulton serves up two traditional Hanukkah dishes that are tricky to prepare.  Step by step, she takes us through the process, starting with Braised Brisket, and on the side, her Aunt Rifka’s recipe for matzo balls they call ‘flying disks’.  Sara and her nephew visit the farm and food incubator Stone Barns in Westchester, New York, to get fresh winter vegetables for her Root Vegetable Latkes. 
  • Games: These involve making your own simple cutout crafts from construction paper or card stock
    • Play “Pin the Candle on the Menorah”.  Have your kids draw and color a giant menorah on posterboard, then make cutout candles to stick on while blindfolded.  Kids take turns until all eight candles are placed.
    • Make a “tick, tack, toe” game out of dreidels and menorahs using hand drawn and cut out pieces and a hand-drawn game board.  Many crafts stores sell foam Hanukkah stickers which can be used as game pieces
  • Crafts:
    • Make a Star of David and Menorah sculptures out of popsicle sticks and a little glue.  Color the sticks beforehand.  You could use pipe cleaners instead of sticks.
    • Organize a plate of fruit into the shape of a menorah
    • There are more great craft ideas listed here.

You will find 101 Hanukkah activities for kids of all ages at care.com.

Printable worksheets

Printable worksheets are a great way to engage students in learning a new topic. KidsKonnect is a growing library of high-quality, printable worksheets for teachers and homeschoolers.  They have loads of Hanukkah Facts and Worksheets that include a fact file and activities for a range of ability levels.

Hanukkah online and multi-media resources

My Jewish Learning is offering a live community candle-lighting over Zoom every night of Hanukkah. 

ReformJudaism.org has a platter full of Hanukkah resources, videos, recipes, and activities for all ages.

Making your classroom more holiday-inclusive

This can be a challenge, particularly in today’s pluralistic society.  Here are a few ideas for celebrating holiday ideas upon which most families can agree no matter their faith or absence of it.

  • Move the spotlight off the individual student and onto others by underscoring the spirit of giving
    • Students can study figures from history who spent their lives focused on the needs of others
    • Children can also make gifts for each other, their parents/guardians, or other family members
    • Have your students taking part in a food drive or toy drive as a method to teach about the spirit of giving
  • Create multicultural celebrations
    • Acknowledging the various beliefs of students in your classroom can extend beyond the month of December
    • Celebrations of the major holidays of various faiths could occur throughout the year at the appropriate time
    • Why not make a commemoration of a holiday an opportunity to give a history lesson on the development of the holiday?
    • You can have your students investigate the cultural significance of the celebration
    • Learning about various faiths does not signify an endorsement by you or the school of that belief system
  • Limit celebrations to foundational ideas
    • A vital part of multiculturalism is to teach children about various points of view
    • By focusing on common ideas such as charity, celebrations become more universal without the added layer of religious debate
  • Maintain anti-bias goals
    • Holiday celebrations are a great way to have students examine the similarities and differences of our shared society
    • Shedding light on these differences, and celebrating them in a non-judgmental manner, is a great lesson for children to learn
  • Finally, keep parents/guardians informed
    • Let the parents/guardians of your students know ahead of time what and how religious holidays will be commemorated
    • In this way, parents can nuance what you are teaching in the classroom with their own beliefs
    • Some parents may want their child to opt out of the holiday celebration, so be prepared with an appropriate response which honors their beliefs
    • Let your school administrator know what you will be doing with regard to religious holidays, and follow the school’s guidance on the issue

Teachers and administrators may find this article helpful when assessing options for instruction about religions in U.S. public schools.

Hanukkah may be a Jewish holiday, but this festival of lights can be celebrated by all.

Hanukkah sameach!

Image source: Hanging Stars Vectors by Vecteezy

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