AtheismReligionTraditions & Celebrations

Festival of Lights: Doing Holidays When You Don’t Do Religion

As my kid has noted on many occasions, Jewish holidays are often not much fun.

On Yom Kippur, for instance, it’s fasting and repenting. I don’t fast.  My kid and Dr. Skull fast, Dr. Skull earnestly and the kid moodily.

“Why do I have to do this?” she demands of me, every single year.  “I’m an atheist!”

“You don’t have to,” I point out. “You can say no.”

“Hmf,” she hmfs.  “Dad would be sad.”

And on Passover, though we do invite all our friends over for the Seder – so that’s fun – we have to eat the bread of affliction, not to mention horseradish, and the kid has to drink wine.  (“Just a little,” Dr. Skull urges.  “Come on.  A sip.  It’s in the Haggadah!”  She makes a face and gags it down.)

*** *** ***

But Hanukkah, on the other hand – What’s not to like?

Dr. Skull and I bought our first Hanukkah menorah when the kid was five months old; we’ve got three or four now, including one she made herself.  The kid loves lighting the candles (any excuse to play with fire) and she and Dr. Skull say the prayer together, though we don’t do any of the other religious bits you’re supposed to do — none of the Torah readings, for instance.

If you’re not familiar with Hanukkah rituals, the first night – right at sunset – you light one candle, plus the shamash candle.  (Shamash means helper.) These go in the menorah and have to burn themselves out, while you eat latkes and open the presents and play dreidel.

The next night, two candles, plus the shamash, and so on through the nights, until on the last night, all eight candles, plus the shamash, are burning.Lighting the candles

The candles are special Hanukkah candles, and nearly impossible to get in Northwest Arkansas.  We used to have to drive to Tulsa or Kansas City on a yearly pilgrimage to find them.  Now, however, I can order them from Amazon by the crate.  Free shipping, even!  We like the brightly colored sort.   But there are tons of kinds.

Hanukkah presents aren’t a big deal – only kids get them, not adults, and only one small present a day.  So, for example, the kid will get, one day, a box of art pencils she’s been wanting; and another day a graphic novel, and another day a bag of licorice.  Still, it’s fun.  And there’s no pretense that the presents come from a mystical being.  Kids know their parents bought them. Though when my kid was little I did used to tease her about Hanukkah elves.

“Uh-oh,” I would say.  “What if the Hanukkah elves forgot your presents this year?”

“MOM,” she would say.  As in MOM, I am NOT an idiot.

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On the first night of Hanukkah, we have a very greasy meal and invite plenty of friends over.

The greasy meal – for those of you not familiar with this part of the festival – has to do with the miracle of the oil.  Because the oil which was only supposed to last one day lasted eight, we light candles for eight days; and we also eat really oily food.

I make the best latkes, though I also drive Dr. Skull to distraction by eating ketchup on them.  Traditionally, Jews eat sour cream or apple sauce on their latkes.

But as I point out, ketchup is very much like applesauce, in that it is a fruit garnish; if ketchup had been available in the shtetl, I claim, Jews would have eaten it on their latkes.  Also, ketchup on latkes is great, that’s all I’m saying.

There are also jelly donuts and usually some sort of chicken, usually fried.

We also have a lot of beer and cider and wine. I am not sure if this is authentically part of Hanukkah.  It may only be part of the Ozarks Hanukkah.

Hanukkah gelt

We play dreidel for chocolate coins. Dreidel, I am sorry to tell you, is not such a fun game.  Frequently we end up just eating the chocolate.

Mostly we eat a lot, drink a lot, and talk a lot. The house fills with light and the scent of cooking food.  The candles burn out, and the kids play with hot wax while they do.  “Don’t set yourself on fire,” I say, at least three or four times.

“MOM,” says the kid.  As in MOM, I am NOT an idiot.

*** *** ***

The official story of Hanukkah is interesting, but in fact all cultures have some such story to justify a festival, here at the bleakest point in the year: some reason to bring together friends and family, to light a fire, light a candle, bring color and flavor into the grim depth of the winter.

Not to mention lovely, greasy food, laughter, and plenty of alcohol.

Give out presents, too.  Why not?

It’s a long time until spring, y’all.  We need all the help we can get.

 *** *** ***

(Bonus song, because how could I not?)

(Images all from Wikicommons: Menorah by Kazimier; Finni, Brooklyn Hanukkah; Chanukah Gelt)


Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings is a member and co-founder of the Boston Mountain Writers Group. She has published short fiction in Strange Horizons and The Future Fire, as well as in the recent feminist SF anthology The Other Half of The Sky. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was published by Crossed Genres. She blogs at delagar.

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  1. (Googles Reibkuchen busily) Yes! Those do sound like latkes! The only difference seems to be latkes have Matzo meal in them, and Reibkuchen have (in most of the recipes I found!) flour. Some had sour cream. What recipe do you use?

    I have the feeling Grumbeerkieschelcher is a joke. But Google translate does not help me. 🙁

    1. Nah, Grumbeerkieschelcher aren’t a joke, it’s just dialect
      Grumbeer = ground-pear = potatoe
      Kiechelche = Küchlein = little cake
      I mostly just make them from scratch every time I make them *gg*. I use cornstarch instead of flour cause it works better in my opinion.

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