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Family Life

The Warmth of a Family Hanukkah

Marlene Kern Fischer

A month or two ago, I checked the calendar to see when Hanukkah is this year. Unlike Christmas, which is always celebrated on the same day, Hanukkah is a moving target. The Jewish calendar is based on a lunar calendar, which is why holidays and festivals occur on different dates on the Gregorian calendar. If you are Jewish or have Jewish friends, you also undoubtedly know that the shifts are the reason Jewish holidays are always “late” or “early” (and never “on time”).

This is a long way of saying that I wanted to know if my college freshman was going to be home to celebrate with us. Last year, Hanukkah fell in early December and I had friends who had no children home for the holiday. Not tragic but definitely a little sad. Several years ago, Hanukkah began the night of Thanksgiving (Jewish holidays begin and end at sundown), giving rise to the name Thanksgivukkah. I suppose that timing was efficient in terms of celebrating but a little early for present buying.

I was delighted to discover that this year, the first night of Hanukkah falls on December 22, which means my youngest will indeed be home from college. In addition, because Hanukkah (an eight-day holiday) overlaps with Christmas, we will be in the holiday spirit with everyone else and our older kids, who live an hour away in the city, will have time off from work and should be able to join us as well.

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is not a major Jewish holiday. However, its general proximity to Christmas has led to it being the Jewish equivalent in terms of gift giving, parties and family gatherings. Hanukkah commemorates the Jews’ victory over a tyrant king and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. As the story goes, there was only enough purified oil (which took eight days to make) to light the eternal light in the Temple (the light above the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments that was never to be extinguished) for one night. However, the oil miraculously lasted eight days. I’ve seen memes that liken the miracle of Hanukkah to having eight percent battery life on your cell phone and making it through the week without charging it. 

To observe the miracle, we light candles on a menorah (candelabrum) for eight nights and we eat latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly donuts) and other food cooked with oil. Not exactly good for one’s diet but hey, it’s only one week a year!

As I mentioned earlier, we also exchange gifts on Hanukkah. When my children were little, we gave them presents every night starting with something small the first few nights (like a book) and ending with the biggest gift on the last night. After eight nights of presents, though, they seemed to expect the gifts would continue forever and were disappointed when they didn’t. 

As my sons have gotten older, we’ve dispensed with the eight gifts and instead get them a few things we know they want/need. Cash and gift cards are always a crowd pleaser. The years that our sons were not able to be with us for the holiday, we mailed things to them and made sure they had a menorah to light at school. If you’re concerned about your student leaving candles burning in their dorm room or apartment, there are electric menorahs which are safer. It’s definitely hard to be in the middle of finals when Hanukkah occurs but sometimes that’s just how the dreidel (four-sided spinning top used during the holiday for a gambling game of sorts) falls. 

One of our family traditions has been to give our sons the annual Hess toy truck. If you’re not familiar with the truck, for 55 years the Hess Oil Company (and its successor) put out a different truck (batteries included) for the Holidays. I must say, those trucks are pretty cool. They have lots of bells and whistles and each version is more fun than the last. When the boys were young, they actually played with those trucks but as they got older, they would put the batteries in to see what the vehicle could do and then relegated it to the basement (where we have quite the collection). My youngest son has been receiving the truck long past the age when his brothers declared they were done. However, I think he too is now done with Hess trucks which is a good thing because our basement is like a Hess truck museum and we’ve run out of space. Perhaps someday we will revisit this tradition with our grandkids. Meanwhile, if our sons get nostalgic, they can go down to our basement and press the buttons on all the trucks down there as much as they like.

In the end, whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or Festivus, the holidays are about being together with friends and family and passing down both religious and family traditions. 

Wishing you a joyous holiday season!



Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother, food shopper extraordinaire, author and college essay editor. She has published two books: Trapped in My Sports Bra and Other Harrowing Tales and Gained a Daughter but Nearly Lost My Mind: How I Planned a Backyard Wedding During a Pandemic. Find her on Facebook at Thoughts From Aisle 4.

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