Commonly referred to as the “Festival of Lights”, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah takes place over eight nights to commemorate an ancient miracle. Friends and family celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the menorah, spinning dreidels, exchanging small gifts and eating grease-laden, fried foods (think oily latkes and deep-fried doughnuts). Gatherings typically take place on the first night of Hanukkah, but you can host a party anytime during the holiday. This festive time is characterized by a sense of fun and lends itself well to party planning. Herewith, your guide to hosting the perfect Hanukkah party.
The traditional colours of Hanukkah are blue, white and silver. Integrate this colour scheme when setting the table — start with a white tablecloth, or if you want to inject more colour, use a blue tablecloth with a silver runner on top. Round out the theme with white dishes, blue stemware and blue napkins (ideally tied with a silver bow). Create your own “festival of lights” centrepiece by placing candles in blue votives in the middle of the table — light them just before guests arrive. While it is customary during Hanukkah to give children gelt — chocolate coins of varying sizes that come in a mesh bag — adults enjoy it too. When setting the table gelt can do double duty by indicating where guests should sit and then serving as a party favour for guests to take home (although it will likely be eaten well before the party’s over). Write each guest’s name on a place card and, using a silver ribbon, tie the place card around a bag of gelt, placing a sack of gelt at each table setting.
Dreidels (four-sided spinning tops) can also do double duty — scatter dreidels of varying colours and sizes on the table as a decorative item (you can find dreidels at Judaica stores such as the Israeli Source) and after the meal young guests can play with them.
Consuming fried foods is not only encouraged, it is an integral part of celebrating Hanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Chief among Hanukkah’s oily treats is the latke, a potato pancake strongly associated with the holiday. Although typically made of grated potato, egg and flour (or matzo meal) and fried in oil, several variations of the latke have emerged over the years. Some people add spinach, grated carrots or zucchinis to their latkes, while the more health-conscious among us might opt to bake rather than fry them.
Soofganiot — jelly-filled doughnuts — are traditional treats that are especially popular with children (and adults who needn’t worry about their waistline.)
Another tasty treat often served during Hanukkah is chocolate babka, a cake-like confection that is flaky on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside. Eating dairy products, especially cheese, is another gastronomic Hanukkah tradition, in commemoration of the Jewish heroine Judith (according to legend, just as the Assyrians were about to conquer the Jews, she killed the Assyrian commander after feeding him wine and cheese.) Other favourite dishes often served at Hanukkah include kugel (a side dish comprised of noodles, eggs and vegetables, although countless variations exist), matzo ball soup and brisket (a cut of beef that requires long, slow cooking).
Lighting the Menorah
The menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum, is lit for the eight nights of Hanukkah to commemorate the miracle — dating back to around 165 BCE — in which a small flask with just enough oil to last one day miraculously lasted eight days during the re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, allowing enough time for more sacred oil to be found. On the first night, only the shamash (a special candle used to light the others in the menorah) and the first candle are lit. After being lit, the menorah is customarily placed near a window.
Hanukkah music is upbeat and especially popular with children. Two of the most well-known Hanukkah songs are “I have a little dreidel” and “Oh Chanukah”. Popular Hebrew songs include “Ner Li” (“I have a candle”) and “Sevivon, Sov, Sov, Sov” (“Sevivon” is the Hebrew word for “dreidel”, which is the Yiddish word for “spinning top”.) You can buy a compilation of traditional Hanukkah songs at most Judaica stores. If your party is in the evening and doesn’t include children, you may opt instead to play soft, subtle music in the background — artists like Norah Jones, Michael Buble or Diana Krall would do nicely.