Don't overdo it. That's the lesson to remember most when planning special dinners for any of the eight days of Hanukkah (or Hanukah/Chanukah; they're all correct).
"We don't fuss. It's still just about the lights," says Francine Cohen, executive editor of hospitality magazine Inside F&B. Cohen grew up in Washington following Jewish traditions and continues her own celebrations with her husband and friends today in New York City.
This Festival of Lights is less important, according to Jewish law, than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but it's become a bigger deal because of its proximity to Christmas. Hanukkah starts on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, coinciding with late November to late December on today's internationally accepted Gregorian calendar, according to About's Judaism essay. In Hebrew, Hanukkah means "dedication," as in the re-dedication of the holy temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 B.C.E.
Kids do get presents eight days in a row, but it's typically modest, nothing like the windfall seen under the Christmas tree. The tradition of lighting a candle on each of the eight days is traced to what Jewish troops did after their victory. They wanted to purify the temple — which had been the site of swine sacrifices and idol worship — by burning ritual oil in the temple's menorah for eight days. But they only had one day's worth of oil. To their surprise, that small amount lasted eight days. That's why candles and oil, used for the glorious fried food on our Hanukkah recipe page, hold such prominence in holiday celebrations.
"A great miracle happened there; the simple act of light. Don't overdo it with trying to show off," Cohen says. When it comes to deciding on your own Hanukkah table, "go for an elegant and subtle table that leaves the focus on the lights, and the family gathering around to celebrate together their religious beliefs that were banned."
A Slightly More Classic Table
A Much More Classic Table with Lights as the Main Focus
Many Jews bemoan the increasing commercialization of their sacred holiday. It's not Christmas, so why try to replicate that devotion to red and green colors with traditional Hanukkah colors of blue and silver? But, but, but … we wanna, you say. It's a happy holiday and color schemes make it even more festive, especially for children. In that case, jump in with both feet and shop online at Eichlers and Modern Tribe.
A 12-inch "Chanukah Sparkle" Melamine Dreidel Tray
Chanukah Hologram Light Set
"Totally kitsch," says Gayle Squires, a NYC-based health consultant and food writer who's taught Hanukkah cooking classes. "Are there any Hanukkah decorations that won't be kitsch?" Since 2009, she's run a recipe-stuffed blog, Kosher Camembert, mentioned by Saveur. Squires grew up celebrating Hanukkah as a minor holiday.
Either embrace the kitsch totally or stick close the basic traditions that dictate the menorah as the most eye-catching item on the table — except for the food, of course.
"You don't need lots of glitz. Keep it simple," Cohen says. Although she sees no need for fancy chargers under plates and dreidel-decorated platters and knick-knacks, Cohen likes the tasteful way major retailers Pottery Barn and Crate&Barrel handle Hanukkah table décor.
Shiny, Silver, Tall Menorah
Blue Ombre Hanukkah Menorah Candles, Set of 45
Lurex Stripe Table Runner, Silver
Designers Michael Aram and Jonathan Adler also do Hanukkah-themed pieces that don't make people with more subtle tastes cringe. They manage to celebrate the holiday tastefully on the wares they produce and remain true to their brand identity too, Cohen says. "Aram, for instance, simply produces stunning pieces that are about function and beautiful form, not shouting, 'Let me tell you about the holiday!' At Jonathan Adler, it can get quirky, but he stops short of obnoxious kitsch; there's real style and his personality there," she says.
Michael Aram Botanical Leaf Judaica Collection Menorah
Jonathan Adler Ceramic Dachschund Menorah
Jonathan Adler Modern Skyline Menorah
And what's with the blue and white? Some say the Israeli flag, but then that's related to the blue on Jewish prayer shawls worn in synagogues and at special occasions. That specific blue is worn because God told Israelites to wear it as a reminder of the 10 commandments, according to Numbers 15:38-39 in Hebrew Scripture (as well as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible).
Another idea: Used year-round, wreaths can also be Hanukkah-themed just by being blue and white. This wreath doesn't scream HANUKKAH!!!! It almost looks like a simple winter wreath.
You have choices, according to Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, author of the blog Kveller. (Kvell: to burst with pride, as over one's child.)
- Reject all decorations.
- Only permit “traditional” Hanukkah décor, like menorahs and dreidels.
- Embrace the non-religious Christmas offerings.
- Cover your home with Hanukkah-ized Christmas decorations, like star of David and dreidel Christmas tree ornaments, and inflict the Mensch on a Bench hiding-stuffed-toy tradition, a riff on that Elf on a Shelf.
"Our home is now filled with menorahs, dreidels, banners, and lots and lots of sweet treats," Schorr says on her blog. "Because that’s the way our one family does Hanukkah."
— Head Image: Pottery Barn.
Amy Sowder is a NYC-based food and fitness writer as well as the assistant editor for Chowhound. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her never-ending ice cream pursuits. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.