1) What's the deal with the spelling (or lack thereof?)
Chanukah is a Hebrew and/or Yiddish word. That means the word is spelled with letters that are not in English. Some people have preferred spellings, but as far as a "correct" spelling goes...it depends who you ask. I like to spell it as many ways as I can in a single document, both as a personal challenge and because I have a better chance of finding it with a search if I cover my bases.
Back when Greece ruled Israel, there was (as we say in preschool) "a bad king" named Antiochus. He told Jewish people that they had to eat pigs. Pigs are like the EPITOME of not-kosher. God said not to eat a bunch of stuff, but for whatever reason, even people who don't keep kosher sometimes draw the line at pig.
So Judah Maccabee and the Maccabees fought and fought and the Greeks destroyed the temple and ruined all the holy oil . Obviously the Jews lived. But they could only find one tiny bit of oil to last one day. Miraculously the oil lasted for 8 days, long enough to make new oil and to bring about an eight night long festival of lights.
Or, that's the simple version at any rate.
Here's an even simpler (two minute long) explanation a la Sesame Street!
3) WHAT are we eating this time?
Lots of stuff with oil. Because...oil.
The two biggies are potato latkes and sufganiot.
Latkes are what many people call potato pancakes. I don't think there's a difference between a latke and a potato pancake, except that a truly traditional latke has chicken fat in it. I usually make plain ole' latkes, though I've experimented with hiding veggies inside.
Amy at What Jew Wanna Eat has about a kajillion traditional and not traditional recipes right here! She's planning on getting even MORE great latke recipes up soon!
Of course, no modern day table would be complete without some of the special foods being on a diet! Beth Rosen offers this egg free, gluten free allergy free recipe at Goodness, Gracious Living!
Sufganiot recipes are a little harder to come by, but it's basically a jelly donut.
Brisket is also very popular at every Jewish meal. I don't know why. But I do know that Deb at Deb CB has been gracious enough to share her recipe here.
4) Why does my kid always come home from school singing about a dreidel?
There are plenty of Hanukkah songs. Tons of them. But for whatever reason, every public school I've ever taught in or had a child in seems to only know that one song about the dreidel.
Driedel is a Hanukkah game involving a spinning top and...y'know...what basically amounts to gambling for candy.
Each letter on the dreidel is part of the acronym for "A Great Miracle Happened There". The game is often played with Gelt (chocolate coins).
Want to try a different Hanukkah song this year? This one SO fun!
5) What about presents?
My understanding is that presents are only a big deal in places where Hanukkah "competes" for attention with Christmas. Some families do other special stuff each night instead of presents. A friend and former coworker of mine plays dreidel with a different type of candy each night. I knew a family that did a family activity together each night.
We do presents each night, because that's what we did when I was a kid. Still, I like to keep them very small and then do like a bigger present on the last night.
Last year our Editor in Chief manipulated the situation to where she bought Rubix Cubes for our Head of Demolition and Head of Security to give to each other. It was a roaring success:
6) What's that menorah thing?
The commandment for Chanukkah is to light the menorah or chanukiah. Most people have probably at least seen one. It holds eight candles, one for each night and also a shamash, or helper candle. On the first night, one candle is lit. The second night, two candles, and so on.
Judaism has a lot of rules. You have to go from left to right or right to left or something. That's why I like our menorah. It doesn't have anything confusing like the shamash (helper candle that lights the other eight candles) in the middle. Try not to study too closely. We probably did it wrong.
Menucha has an absolutely beautiful do it yourself menorah at Moms and Crafters:
7) Crafts and stuff.
There's SO MUCH fun stuff to do for Hanukkah!! Here are some marshmallow dreidels I made with my Sunday school class a few years ago:
Bible Belt Balabusta has SO many cool things! Like a Lego menorah! If I weren't trying to take over the internets and renovate our kitchen and sell Jamberries and raise a family and work two real jobs and stuff, I'd totally be perusing eBay and Amazon and stuff to find all the little Lego flames I could to build it.
8) Picture books
For a big list of 25 + Hanukkah picture books for big and little kids click here!
That's about it as far as a short and sweet overview. I know a lot more about this stuff than I did when I started teaching in Jewish schools umpteen years ago, but I still totally reserve the right to be wrong. About everything.
Happy Hanukkah, Chanukah, and Chanukka everyone!