When most people think of the holiday season, it’s Christmas trees, wreaths, and a cornucopia of green and red lights that come to mind. But folks shouldn’t forget about the original December festival of lights: the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. An underrated holiday for gathering friends and family, Hanukkah parties are just as much fun—and possibly more interactive—as any other holiday celebration you’ll have this season.
To understand the Hanukkah story and the origins of its traditional celebrations, you have to go all the way back to the second century BC. At that time, the land of Israel, then called Judea, was occupied by Syrian-Greeks who attempted to force the Jews to worship Greek gods. After the Jewish freedom fighters successfully expelled their occupiers from Judea, they focused on rededicating the destroyed holy Second Temple. While rebuilding they found only enough oil to light the menorah, a candelabrum in the temple that was supposed to burn continuously, for only one day. But miracle of miracles, that oil managed to keep the menorah burning for eight days. The miracle of the ever-burning oil is why Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights and lasts for eight days.
Modern Hanukkah celebrations pay homage to this ancient victory with gifts, feasts of oil-fried food, lighting a special menorah called a Chanukiah, and playing the (possibly) only family-friendly gambling game, dreidel. It’s dreidel that makes a Hanukkah party stand out from your typical holiday festivities: Not just simply finger food and cocktails, dreidel parties keep your guests interacting, laughing, and winning mounds of chocolate money to take home as a prize, or at least boast about in pride.
Here’s how the game works: You play with a four-sided spinning top, called a dreidel. Each side of the dreidel has one of the four hebrew letters nun, gimel, hei and shin, an acronym for the Hebrew phrase nes gadol hayah sham, meaning “a great miracle happened there.” Players sit in a circle and each takes a turn spinning the dreidel in order to win from a central pot. The pot can be anything from nuts to coins to jacks or other trinkets, but it’s most common to play with gelt, gold foil-covered chocolate coins. To start, the pot is split equally between all players so they get about 10 pieces each, then each person puts one item from their pile into the center. Then the first player spins, and whichever letter lands face-up determines how much they get from the pot.
Nun: You get nothing. But you also give up nothing. So it’s sort of a neutral play. This play is easy to remember because nun is pronounced similarly to “noon,” which sounds like “none.”
Gimel: Rhymes with “Jimmy Kimmel.” You get the whole pot! Enjoy your winnings for a few seconds, because you and everyone else now has to put one piece back in the pot to continue the game.
Hei: Pronounced the same as “hey” or “hay.” You get half the pot. Easy.
Shin: Just like the part of your body that hurts when someone kicks it, landing on shin hurts because you alone have to throw a piece back into the central pot.
As soon as someone can’t put a piece back in after rolling a shin or a gimmel, they are out of the game. It continues until there is only one player left.
The great thing about dreidel is that it’s easy for adults and children alike to play, allows you to converse with your guests during and between spins, and gives the gift of chocolate coins—what’s not to love? Add some traditional Hanukkah foods, drinks, and decorations, and you’ve got the makings of a Hanukkah dreidel party to remember. Some tips to make it great:
There’s really no minimum or maximum number of people for a round of dreidel. However, depending on the size of your guest list you may need a few dreidel games going or it will take forever for each person to get a spin…and for the game to end. Make sure you have a handful of dreidels, and go for different sizes, colors, and materials to keep it interesting. Having differing dreidels also prevents any confusion when one goes spinning out of control and lands in someone else’s game. Yes, it happens.
Make the rules flexible if you have young children playing. It’s not hard to get a handle on spinning a dreidel, but kids might have a tough time. If they try to spin and it just flops over, play it as it lands.
Have a little goodie bag for your guests to take home. The best gift is the gift of gelt, because who doesn’t love snack sized chocolate? You can buy them in convenient yellow netted bags or be a little more original and make them from scratch via the recipe below. You can also hand out dreidels, light-themed grab bags, or anything else that fits the festivities.
Dreidel can be played sitting at a table or casually on the floor. Just remember you’re hosting a whole holiday party so make sure you have ample space for guests to linger and enjoy themselves when they get eliminated from the game.
Lights, lights, lights! As it’s the Festival of Lights, make sure your decor represents the season. It creates wonderful ambiance, too.
But no matter how you host or how competitive your dreidel game gets, in the end any holiday party is all about the food. Traditional Hanukkah foods focus on the miracle of oil, so frying is the name of the cooking game. Set out a buffet of these super-traditional Hanukkah delights:
Latkes are probably the most traditional Hanukkah treats anywhere. Fried potato pancakes made from shredded potatoes, onion, matzah meal, salt, and pepper, these little pancakes are easy to whip up and go best with either a little sour cream or applesauce. Or both. You can also get fancy and create a latke bar with different toppings and sides. The trick, though, is to serve them almost immediately out of the pan. If you let them sit too long, they get greasy and mushy. Get our Potato Latkes recipe.
If a sweet fried treat is more your style, go for a more traditional Israeli Hanukkah dish. Sufganiyot, stuffed and fried donuts, serve as the perfect dessert for your party. All sufganiyot can be customized with different fillings, but this recipe gives an extra original twist with the addition of apple cider vinegar and salted caramel. Yum! Get our Apple Cider Sufganiyot with Salted Caramel recipe.
No, applesauce isn’t a fried food but is pretty much required to be served alongside latkes. You can buy the canned stuff from the supermarket or make this easy and delicious recipe. If your apple of choice is super sweet feel free to cut down on the added sugar. Get our Applesauce recipe.
Many stores will have bags of pre-wrapped gelt, but why not impress your friends and make your own? You can have a little extra fun by picking up multicolored foil to contrast with the traditional gold. This recipe adds savory sea salt and suggests that you use a mold, but nobody’s going to complain about your freeform style as they wolf these down after an intense game of dreidel. Get the recipe.
Somewhere in that cornucopia of fried treats you need something a little, well, less fried. Brisket is a traditional main course in Jewish celebrations, and this recipe will have the beef melting in your mouth. The best thing about brisket is that you can make it a day before and let it rest in the fridge to allow the flavors to come together. The second best thing is one brisket makes a ton of food, so you’ll have a party of any size covered. Note: If anyone in your party keeps kosher, they’re not going to want to mix this dish with the other dairy-based options listed here. Get our Spice and Herb Oven-Braised Brisket recipe.
A traditional Jewish noodle casserole, kugel comes in sweet or savory forms. This creamy recipe with the telltale crunch on top errs on the side of sweet, which means it can serve as a great side dish to the brisket or an alternative dessert. Bubbe’s recipe gives you a slightly healthier version than a more typical recipe. Get our Bubbe’s Luchen Kugel recipe.
Got guests who aren’t into chocolate coins? Make macaroons instead. Quite different than french macarons, these are made with sweet shredded coconut and have a soft bite like a cookie. Macaroons are a great party food because they can be made up to a week ahead and stored in an air-proof container. Customize with different flavors or ignore that guest’s aversion to chocolate by following the tips to dip them. Get the recipe.
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