Hanukkah Traditions from the Deep South

by CountryFriedMama on November 30, 2010

If you're new here, you may want to subscribe in a reader. Thanks for visiting!

Months ago, I asked a bunch of moms I know here how they make Hanukkah meaningful for their kids and whether Christmas affects the way they celebrate the festival of lights.

These women have a few things in common: they all observe Hanukkah in their homes, they all love their kids and want to make great memories for them, and they were all kind enough to tell me about how they approach the holidays.  But they also have many differences.  Some are Jewish but married to men who aren’t; some are Christian but married to Jews.  Some have 100-percent Jewish families but embrace the secular trimmings of Christmas.  Some are native to the South.  Some are transplants.

Here’s a sampling of their feedback on the burning questions I had as the season loomed:

Do your kids believe in the fat man in the red suit?

Miss D. is doing her best to repress her incredulity that the guy at the mall is the same guy at the farmers’ market is the same guy who shows up at Grandma & Grandpa’s house while she sleeps on Christmas Eve.  She asks me whether elves are real.  When I turn the question back on her like any mother who doesn’t want to lie but hesitates to turn a disbelieving 4-year-old loose on Christmas-celebrating peers, she decides elves must be real.  It is convenient for her to decide that.  The elves have been very, very good to her.

Santa is a big deal to many interfaith families, and still significant to some Jewish ones.  He is omnipresent at this time of year and apparently fascinating in a frightening, why-is-my-mom-making-me-sit-on-this-dude’s-lap kind of way.  Several people told me they make room for him in some way, even if Hanukkah is their central December holiday.  One mom of grown children told me:

Christmas morning, my kids would go out on the driveway and there would be a little something. I told them that since we were Jewish Santa did not come to our house; however, he wanted them to know that he was passing by and threw something small off of his sleigh for them.  They told their Christian friends and everyone was happy.

Another said:

After lighting the menorahs and singing the Hanukkah songs, the “Hanukkah Man” visits our house. The doorbell rings and the kids run to the door to see what presents the Hanukkah Man has left outside. FYI: The Hanukkah Man and Santa Claus are friends. After all that traveling around to all the Jewish homes for eight straight nights, the Hanukkah Man is tired. That’s why his friend, Santa, has to go to all the non-Jewish homes and deliver Christmas presents.

And also:

Personally, I don’t think Santa is any different than the tooth fairy, another fictional being that brings your children gifts or money when they lose a tooth. I think it is nice to be able to have a blind belief in something as magical as Santa and the goodies he brings. There is no religious association for Santa…

Others, though said they fear confusing their kids and give Santa a wide berth.  He is not in the Hanukkah story and he is not part of their Hanukkah celebrations.  (This was true for me growing up, too.)   I heard this from at least one mom who moved here from another region, as well as from one who was born and raised here.

If a tree falls in the forest, should a Jewish family put it in the living room and decorate it?

Country-Fried Daddy and I often had trees during the years before we had kids and for a couple of years after.  Then we decided maybe we would lean on Grandma and Grandpa to take on tree duty.  It seemed less confusing to separate the holidays a bit rather than cramming both of them into one room.

Plus, it’s a fire hazard to light a menorah next to a dying pine.  So.

But, oh, the lure of the tree!  It can make a room beautiful.  It can also make undigested tinsel protrude out of a cat’s butt, but I’m trying really hard to put that particular holiday memory behind me.

My willing focus group had plenty to say about trees.  There was this:

We used to have a tree growing up that as we got older we called a Hanukkah bush. You could actually have a Hanukkah bush (or plant) and make an ornament each day of Hanukkah. Then you could use it to put the presents nearby. The ornaments could be Jewish themed, like a dreidel or a Star of David.

And also this:

The past several years we have participated in my sister-in-law’s tree trimming party over Thanksgiving weekend. Each year this sparks kid-led discussions on all the ways people are different (religion, shapes, languages, colors, favorite foods, etc.) and all the ways people are the same (all eat, sleep, look at pretty lights, have feelings, etc.).

If you cook it in oil, is it automatically a Hanukkah dish?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but I’ve been told fried chicken is a traditional Deep South Hanukkah meal.  I don’t have that on the menu this week, although I do have a couple of latke parties on the calendar, which is really the best gift I could hope to receive.  I hate making latkes.  Hate.  But if I could find a good beignet mix…

We fix latkes from scratch, fried chicken, beignets (fried doughnuts with powdered sugar), old fashioned popcorn (not microwave), or even homemade salad dressings, etc. We make something different with oil each night. We also make Hanukkah sugar cookies each year.

How do you avoid making Hanukkah just about the loot?

My brother came to visit for Thanksgiving.  We hadn’t seen him since The Belle was three months old, and the girls demanded his attention pretty much every waking moment for three days.  But Miss D. also wanted to know what he had brought for her, because at four, she is all about the presents.

Last year, we talked about Hanukkah as a holiday when we shine a light in the places that are dark, when we celebrate bravery, hope and freedom.  And materialism.

I love this idea for fighting that last bit:

Growing up, my family would assign each person in the family one night of Hanukkah. On our designated night, we would be responsible for coming up with the menu for dinner and helping in some part of the prep. We would also be responsible for giving the gifts to the other family members that night… i.e.,one person would give handmade or store bought gifts to each family member. The hope was that we would each appreciate our own night of giving rather than looking to receive something each night.

And lots of people talked about keeping Hanukkah gifts modest, which I fully intend to do.  Next year.

On the first night we got the biggie, on the 2nd night through the eighth we would get much smaller presents but the quantity always reflected the day. By the 8th day we got things like, a book, silly putty, a yo-yo, shrinky dinks… all very small things.

I’ve heard of families designating one night of Hanukkah to charity.  Any suggestions on making that work with the under-five set?

We took the girls shopping over the weekend to buy Christmas gifts for a struggling family in a neighboring county.  I was so proud of our kids, especially Miss D., who actually stayed awake for the hard work of picking out goodies for someone else.  The Belle fell asleep in the shopping cart and cried when she woke up, mainly because she had drool all over her, not for jealousy.  Two days later, Miss D. is still thinking of things she could buy for the little girl on our list.  On Friday, she knows we’ll drop-off those gifts and celebrate Hanukkah with friends, but we won’t get presents that night.

I got other great feedback about “tzedakah,” which means “charity” in Hebrew.

One thing that works for us is they both have banks with 3 compartments, Spend, Save & Tzedakah (they were ordered online – the ones you can buy locally say Charity). Their allowance has to be divided equally between the three sections, and on Sunday morning they get money from their bank’s tzedakah section to take to Sunday school.


For tzedakah, we start before Hanukkah by going through the closets to give clothes and toys we have outgrown to those in need…(and making room for other things the “Hanukkah Man” may be bring). There are always lots of new toy and food drives during the holidays to participate in, too. My 3-year old and 5-year old have enjoyed sorting cans for food drives and especially like helping sort holiday food boxes at a food pantry for boxes that will later be delivered to those in need for Christmas and/or Thanksgiving.

This was a long post that probably matters to about four people, but writing it mattered a lot to me.  It gave me some ideas about being purposeful in the traditions CFD and I create for our kids.  I think we can make Hanukkah about more than eight nights of stuff and do so without forcing it to be something it isn’t.  I’m actually looking forward to it, even if it is making an obscenely early entry before we have even finished our Thanksgiving leftovers.

Thank you Amy, Erin, Melissa, Sharon, Ashley, Caren, Cindy, Karen, Ellen and Jen for your thoughtful comments and willingness to share with me and whomever might stumble upon this post.

Anybody else want to share how you make your December holiday(s) meaningful?  Leave a comment.

Like it? Stumble it, please. (Click on that little blue and green circle down there.)
  • StumbleUpon

{ 2 trackbacks }

Hanukkah Latkes | Saving For Someday
December 3, 2010 at 11:14 am
InterfaithFamily.com discussion boards and blogs - IFF Network Blog
December 3, 2010 at 1:53 pm

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue Densmore
December 1, 2010 at 6:20 pm


This post had me – and my Christian friends at church music practice – roaring in laughter. Your way with words is so great.

Can I please steal some of these ideas for my students and nieces and nephews?

Thanks for sharing all this.



December 1, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Of course! Steal away. I hope they’re useful.


My Kids Mom December 1, 2010 at 7:28 pm

As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m trying to explain how all the world’s religions have something to offer and really all have a good bit in common. And to not confuse my kids. On the way home from church tonight, after celebrating the first night of Hanukkah, my 6yo says, “I guess Santa and God are kinda alike.”

Um? Oh my. I braced myself. I have tried to make sure that Santa is a bit ambiguous. Each year each child has helped fill xmas stockings for everyone else. They still get a big unwrapped gift from Santa, but if they wanted to put 2 and 2 together it wouldn’t spell Man-in-Red-Suit.

So I went with that. I decided that yes, God and Santa were kind of alike. Both, to me, are symbols of love and generosity. Neither one is something we can see, but we can choose to believe anyway. But we don’t have to.

Why do they hit you with these questions while you’re driving?


December 1, 2010 at 8:38 pm

I love the UU inclusiveness and focus on the religions of the world. One of my biggest discomforts with December is that, while Jewish kids grow up knowing So Much about Christmas, their holiday is a complete mystery to most of their friends. I foresee a future in which I am called on to do the What-Is-Hanukkah? lesson in many of my kids’ class rooms. I don’t relish the thought of it.


Sue Densmore
December 3, 2010 at 3:56 pm

You know, though you may not relish being the “Jewish Woman On Call” to teach about these things in future classrooms, it’s pretty cool that you’re already willing.

As I see it, part of the reason we learn about other cultures and their holidays is because we are learning about each other. It’s not about dry, boring theory. It’s about people, and how remembrances and history are built into their heritage. What better way to build community than to make what might be just academic into something real, that “my friends Miss D and the Belle” celebrate?

And, re: the violin thing, it’s totally musical. It’s not about those dolls…


Phyllis December 1, 2010 at 7:36 pm

What a great post. Funny but real, I appreciate how you put so much thought into the choices you make (and everyone that you asked as well) – It is hard to make conscious personal decisions so often when surrounded by different customs and traditions… Balancing what works with what we want or need can be hard but intention is so important and you show that. Thanks for this!


December 1, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Thank you, Phyllis. I appreciate your weighing in here. Happy Hanukkah!


Weekend Cowgirl
December 2, 2010 at 3:49 pm

We celebrate Christmas in all it’s glory but two of my kiddos go to Temple School so they celebrate Hanukkah also. They have it all going at their house and love every aspect of both celebrations. I visit school once a month for Shabbot and finally have learned most of the songs. (It has taken me awhile!)


Rachel @ Grasping for Objectivity
December 2, 2010 at 3:56 pm

I found it to be a fascinating read!! No matter what religion (or not) you’re in, there are definitely holiday conundrums and complexities. I certainly have my misgivings and doubts about different parts of Christmas and how to handle them, so I always appreciate being able to read different viewpoints with which to glean.


Stacia December 3, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Your tinsel is my dental floss. And that’s a memory I’ll never forget.

But, seriously, some of my favorite childhood memories are celebrating Hanukkah and Passover with my best friend, who was Jewish. I felt so special to be included in her family’s celebrations, and I really enjoyed learning about other traditions, even though I was pretty young. Hopefully your little ones’ friends will as well.


Michael December 4, 2010 at 5:07 am

Thanks for warming my heart and giving me lots of great ideas for Hanukkah!


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: