How To Throw A Hanukkah Party -- Tips On Throwing A Hanukkah Party
Growing up in Eastern Long Island, NY, I had a group of Jewish friends, but we were still a minority in our school. That said, we weren't shown much respect, especially around the holidays. I often had insults hurled at me, and while my grade school teachers would put up Christmas decorations, hardly any bothered to put up so much as a "Happy Hanukkah" sign.
I was especially disappointed when the teacher running the advanced extra-curricular program that I was in failed to honor Hanukkah in any way in her classroom. When I questioned her about this, she explained that she was unable to find any Chanukah decorations. Of course, this was total b.s. because even in the '80s, you could find Hanukkah party favors in any card store or KMart. But she was the teacher, so I wasn't about to argue with her. Instead, I asked if I could make some Hanukkah decorations, and she agreed.
As soon as I got home that evening, I went right to work. Because there were 25 Christmas decorations in her room, I made 26 Chanukah-themed ones. Using oaktag and construction paper, I cut out colorful dreidels, Stars Of Davids, menorahs and even drew a portrait of a family opening Hanukkah gifts.
The next day, I proudly brought my items in and handed them to my teacher ... and she wanted to know why I only made Hanukkah decorations and no Christmas items.
There were times when I wished I celebrated Christmas, but those feelings disappeared whenever I went to one of our family's Hanukkah parties. My cousins on both sides of the family always threw wonderful gatherings that included laughing, singing and of course, great food. When I was younger, I looked forward to getting gifts. However, as I got older, I looked forward to seeing relatives whom I hadn't seen in a while. Being that I'm an only child, it meant a lot to me to know that I still had a large extended family to share my life with.
Included in this piece are some tips for throwing a great Hanukkah party, based on the ones I loved so much in my youth. But while traditions are very important, spending the holiday with loved ones is what it's really about.
Traditional Potato Pancake Recipe
I love food, so one of my favorite Hanukkah traditions is making potato pancakes (latkes). Though there is no real religious significance behind them, they are made with oil -- and are an appropriate (not to mention tasty!) way to pay tribute to the oil that was used to light the menorah in the original Chanukah story. Plus, they're easy and quick to make -- which is important when you're serving party guests.
Of course, everyone I know has a slightly different way of making latkes. Some add onions; some add a little matzoh meal for texture; some add a little milk to the potato mixture. In my family, we usually made them with a little bit of onion and then serve the latkes with both applesauce and sour cream. And though they're a traditional Hanukkah food, don't be shy about enjoying them all year round. This recipe makes about 10-12 latkes, but you can keep repeating the process, depending on the number of guests. Always make sure that there's enough oil in the pan for each batch, so that they can be evenly fried.
Potato Pancakes (latkes)
4 medium potatoes
2 eggs, beaten
2 Tbsp flour
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Peel and shred potatoes with a grater or food processor.
2. Chop the onion and mix in thoroughly to the potatoes. Pat the mixture with paper towels in order to remove as much moisture as possible.
3. Add the eggs and flour and stir together, forming a thick batter.
4. Place a large skillet on the stove and turn to medium-high heat; add the oil and let it get very hot -- be careful not to get burned!
5. Spoon large mounds of the potato mixture (about 2 inches worth per pancake) into the oil and pat down flat with a spatula. The trick here is to only fry up 4-5 at a time; you don't want to have too many in the pan because they won't cook evenly. You also don't want to pat them down too thin or make them too thick; about 1/2 inch depth per latke does the trick.
6. Fry until the bottoms are a nice, golden brown (this takes 4-5 minutes), then flip them over and fry to other side. The outsides should be crisp and the insides soft. They should not be fried to the point where they're crunchy throughout.
7. Place on a large plate covered with paper towels and then place more paper towels on top to soak up the excess oil. Serve immediately.
8. Put out bowls of apple sauce and sour cream with the latkes.
Tips For Throwing A Hanukkah Party
1. Decorate your home in blue, white and silver, the colors of Israel (and then silver is the color of the menorahs). Make sure you also have a menorah, some dreidels and chocolate coins (Hanukkah gelt). One fun thing to do is to make goody bags for the kids and include the coins and little toy dreidels in them.
2. As with any party, keep some appetizers our (or a nosh, as we Jews call it) as the guests arrive. You can serve the standard potato chips, pretzels and M&Ms, but if you want to give your party more of a Jewish slant, serve foods like bagels and mini-knishes.
3. Since Hanukkah begins at sundown, ask the guests to arrive about an hour before. This way, everyone will be there for the lighting of the menorah. When it's time to light the menorah, do it in a central location -- like the living room -- so that everyone can see. In my family, we actually lit a couple of menorahs so that more people could participate.
4. Say the three traditional Chanukah blessings over the menorah(s). You might want to print out a transliteration of the blessings in case you have any guests over who can't read Hebrew or don't know the prayers. You might also read off a line and then have everyone else repeat it back in unison. In our family, the host always lit the main candle (the shamas), but then the kids got to light the rest.
5. After the menorah is lit, lead everyone in singing some traditional Hanukkah tunes. In my house, we always sang "Hava Nagila." We'd start out singing it slowly and would then try to sing it faster and faster and faster until the words were all jumbled together. Meanwhile, my cousins always printed out the words to the these songs in transliterated Hebrew and English, and would then sing them in both. They enjoyed singing some parody songs about the family, too, which was a fun way to get everyone involved. You can also share the story of Hanukkah at this point.
6. For the dinner, serve the latkes front and center, as well as the other items. My cousins kept kosher so dinner was always a dairy meal (with no meat since you can't mix meat and milk according to kosher laws). They always served things like meatless lasagna or cheese blintzes (crepes stuffed with fillings). One of my cousin's husbands is from Morocco, so he made wonderful pies that were filled with spinach or a savory cheese mixture. Use Chanukah-themed plates, cups and table cloths to set the mood.
7. After dinner is a great time to exchange gifts and play a game of dreidel. Though you can simply give out gifts, I always liked it best when we'd do a grab bag. There was just a thrill in not knowing what you might pull out. I remember one year when I was about 8, I won a digital watch in the grab bag and was so happy! If you do a grab bag, have everyone bring a fun, inexpensive gift. Encourage them to wrap it in Hanukkah-themed paper. You can also make the gifts more geared toward the holiday. For example, a great gift to give a kid is an illustrated book that tells the Chanukah story. You could also give a teenage girl a pretty Star Of David necklace or give the host a beautiful new menorah. Or you could go purely for funny gifts. I think the best gift I ever got was a handmade, beaded necktie that was made with purple and white beads. I ended up bringing it to college with me and wearing it to our dorm's holiday party -- and well, it got some interesting comments!
8. For dessert, serve jelly doughnuts, which are eaten in Israel for the holiday. In addition to those, we always had plenty of cakes, brownies, cookies and pies. We had so much food, in fact, it wouldn't surprise me if my cousins still had leftovers!
How To Throw A Hanukkah Party
How To Light A Hanukkah Menorah
Traditional Chanukah Songs
Here are some popular tunes which are traditionally sung for Hanukkah. One thing to note -- as with all old tunes, there are variations on each one.
1. Hava Nagila
2. Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah
3. Rock Of Ages (Maoz Tzur)
4. The Dreidel Song
5. Who Can Retell (Mi Yemalel)
6. Sivivon, sov, sov, sov (Dreidel, spin, spin, spin)
7. Chanukah, Chanukah
Helpful Hanukkah Links
- The Jewish Outreach Institute
- Judaism 101: Chanukkah
Learn about Chanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. Learn the rules for playing dreidel and a recipe for latkes (potato pancakes).
- Chanukah song collection with English and Hebrew versions
The Hanukkah Story
Here's the story of Hanukkah in brief:
In ancient times, the Jews were forced to worship Greek gods by the Greco-Syrians. Judah Maccabee organized a resistance movement, calling his fighters -- appropriately enough -- the Maccabees. They rededicated the Holy Temple of Jerusalem on the 25th day of the month of Kislev (which is when Hanukkah is always celebrated, putting it either in November or December on our modern calendar, depending on how the days match up each year).
The Maccabees discovered that only one vat of purified oil remained, which was enough to light the menorah for a day. However, there was a miracle and that oil managed to keep the menorah lit for an incredible eight days. This is why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and why oily foods like potato pancakes or deep-fried jelly donuts are served.
And in case you were wondering how the holiday is actually spelled, well, there's no easy answer for that. Because a Hebrew word is being transliterated, there are many acceptable variations, including Hanukkah (the most popular), Hanukah, Chanukah, Chanukkah and Hannukah. I've tried to honor a few different spellings in my piece.