Our Community's Most Treasured Hanukkah Traditions

Spreading a little light from us to you.

November 29, 2021
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Synonymous with Hanukkah are, of course, menorahs, dreidels, and latkes, but the larger meaning of the holiday is very much steeped in tradition, which translates to the food, decor, games, and practices that are held dear and passed along in Jewish families around the world.

We reached out to our staff and community to share their most treasured Hanukkah traditions with us, from seasonal foods to beloved gifting practices, in hopes they’ll bring a little light to this year’s holiday. Read on for some heartfelt stories, and maybe pick up a new tradition to bring home along the way.

“Our traditions include… all the food! Latkes (when we get crazy we top them with caviar), matzo ball soup, and the best part: latke leftovers for breakfast topped with lox. Our Hanukkah gifts each night (that come from the fondly-named Hanukkah Harry) have a limit of $20 and end up being the most fun novelty socks, books, candles, and toiletries. We get really creative and competitive about the $20 budget, and will do things like wrap one slipper up for night one and the other for night two. My favorite gift in recent years was a pair of Hello Kitty sake glasses. The other best tradition is that we aim to collect the wildest and silliest menorahs and light them all each night. My best find to-date is a dog-themed menorah that definitely warrants a photo.

Shannon Muldoon, Director, Studio52

Shannon Muldoon's fabulous dog menorah. Photo by Shannon Muldoon

“​​We tend to like to take the traditional Hanukkah activities with a twist. Like frying latkes is traditional…but I do crazy latkes. Salami latkes were a family favorite last year, this year I made wafflatkes with bisquick and latke mix! Amazing! Lighting candles is traditional, and we definitely do that, but last year I made a challah menorah that we could actually light! We give each other gifts, but we like to try and find special ways to give other people gifts. This year I am hosting a challah menorah class where all the proceeds go to charity. So hopefully a lot of people will be able to get gifts this year! Tradition is a big part of our celebrations, but keeping things exciting and fun and special to our family makes the holiday more personal and meaningful.”

—Mandy Silverman, Mandylicious

Mandy's braided challah menorah for this year. Photo by Mandy Silverman
Last year's fully functioning challah menorah. Photo by Mandy Silverman

“I love Mohn cookies so much that I once wrote a story on them and how much they mean to me! Also, since myself and my siblings started having kiddos, I started making everyone their first menorahs, and each kid lights their own menorah. I love that I can gift all the kids in my life their first one. My new things is trying to get away from presents every night, and moving towards family experiences—and doing something special every day. Admittedly, I’m still marinating on this one…"

Sarah Yaffa, Senior Data Analyst II

“A holiday tradition that my mother started, and I continue in my own home, is the night we pull out the “Hanukkah decoration” box. Since we don’t have a large, sparkly tree—or some of the other glitz and glam of Christmas—I try to give Hanukkah decorating its own big night.

I’ll put on music, we haul out the giant box and as we unpack it, we play and sing along to Chanukah songs. We may even dance. We place cards or decor on the fireplace mantle. We’ll put the menorah out, and a bowl of dreidels. We do it together, and on those winter evenings when it’s dark early, the whole family loves the night we bust out the decor. It makes it official.”

Adele Beiny, Life’s Looking Good

Adele's beautifully lit Hanukkah mantel. Photo by Adele Beiny
Decorating the Hanukkah village. Photo by Adele Beiny

“Instead of Santa, we had the “Hanukkah Deer” growing up. My dad told us the deer was the one dropping off presents outside the door, and that he was very shy. Our goal was always to catch a glimpse of him. We would run to a window, after discovering the gifts, to see if we could see it running away,” says Anna Pinkas, sister-in-law to our pantry brand manager, Sebastian Sardo.

“The cutest thing is to see my 5-year-old nephew just as excited about the deer, and telling me he saw a bit of his tail one Hanukkah night. So cute,” Sebastian adds.

—Sebastian Sardo, Brand Manager, Pantry

“With 8 days of Hanukkah to celebrate, we like to switch things up throughout the holiday. We host a mystery Maccabee which is like the Jewish version of Secret Santa, I do a Gelt hot chocolate bar for our Hanukkah party, lots of fun latke variations like my falatkes—a falafel and latke hybrid with all the trimmings, a donut tasting party, and we play GELTELLO which is my twist on Othello, but I make the piece out of gold and silver gelt!”

—Chanie Apfelbaum, Busy in Brooklyn

Chanie's "falatkes," the ultimate falafel and latke combo. Photo by Chanie Applebaum

"Hanukkah doesn't always fall during the end of December, but when it does, my family (we're Jewish and Christian, though not really religious) blends Hanukkah with our version of a Christmas Eve feast of the seven fishes—we'll have latkes with lox and other smoked fish. Sometimes we'll still do this even if Hanukkah's already over!

I also cherish our Star of David ornament, which makes a yearly appearance front and center on the Christmas tree—simple, but effective. When I was very small, I assumed everyone got to take part in more than one religious tradition (like I did), but it was only as I visited others’ homes that I learned it wasn’t the case. I still feel that my early exposure to the traditions of two religions—which, let’s be honest, barely scratches the surface when it comes to worldwide belief systems—helped me understand at a young age that there wasn’t just one way to see the world, and definitely not just one way to celebrate."

Rebecca Firkser, Assigning Editor

“Growing up my mom used to get us presents for every night, with the bigger presents being for the first and last night. The other nights would be more akin to stocking-stuffers. We didn’t do a Christmas tree, so she’d wrap my presents in one kind of wrapping, and my sisters in another, and put them on our fireplace. When we were younger, on the first night, we’d usually watch the Rugrats Hanukkah episode and do homemade latkes and play dreidel. One year, someone brought us terrible cookies: they must have mixed up salt and sugar or something—so it was decided that if you got eliminated, you had to eat a cookie!

Everyone had their own special menorah and we would light the candles every night and say the prayer, even if you got home decently late that night. Often, we’d have friends over that had never seen a Hanukkah celebration because I grew up in a town with very few Jewish families. My family wasn’t very religious but loved the cultural side. As for gifts, if you got roller skates, you might get the helmet one night and elbow and knee pads a different night and the skates on the final night!”

—Hannah Zeskind, Brooklinen Head of PR & Partnerships

Growing up, my mom and I always made out Hanukkah and Christmas cookies, because we had a mixed household, so my parents made sure everything was equally represented. We make latkes each year, and my mom always makes them from scratch, so people will come looking for latkes and cookies every year because she gives them out. And no matter what, we had to be home to light the menorah together.

Now, as an adult, with my more-religious Persian fiancé’s family, I’ve experienced Hanukkah in a more spiritual way that I didn’t always know about. His Sephardic family grew up lighting vials of olive oil, but I grew up using candles. The miracle of Hanukkah is to bring light in the darkness, and the olive is seemingly so small, but can actually create enough oil to burn for many hours. We’ve now adopted his family’s tradition of lighting the menorah, turning the lights out, and sitting together singing Hanukkah songs while watching it burn.

—Danielle Czizik, my very good friend and wealth of Jewish knowledge

The holiday cookie assembly line. Photo by Danielle Czizik, Danielle Czizik

What traditions do you and your family partake in? We'd love to hear them below!

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When I'm not writing & editing for Home52, I'm likely to be found DIY-ing a new piece of furniture (or restoring an old one), hanging things on the wall in my apartment, or watching hours of vintage RHONY.