It's winter holiday season, meaning some of your students may celebrate Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, in the Jewish religion.
Late November through early December is a good time to celebrate Hanukkah with your students and teach them about why and how it's celebrated. This year, Hanukkah—which lasts for eight days—begins on December 10 at sunset and ends on December 18 at nightfall. (If you're looking for classroom activities to also celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa, check out this blog.)
You may wish to start by providing your students with some background information. We dug through the HMH archives and found this explanation:
It commemorates the victory of the Jewish people over the Syrians. Long ago, the Syrians had ruled over Israel and had not allowed the Jews to study or practice their religion. When the Jewish people in Judea reclaimed their temple in Jerusalem, they found only one small vessel of oil to light the holy lamps. Normally it would be enough to burn for only one day. Miraculously, the lamps burned for eight days. That was enough time to obtain new oil. The holiday of Hanukkah lasts for eight days in memory of this miracle.
Hanukkah Activities and Games for the Classroom
Check out the following Hanukkah activities for elementary students, which can be done either in person or virtually, depending on your current situation.
1. Spin the Dreidel Game
The dreidel game is a classic Hanukkah tradition. This is a game for multiple players, so it's ideal for students learning in an in-person setting. However, students can also individually spin the dreidel online (for example, here or here) or with their families as a group. All they need is a dreidel and countable game pieces such as pennies, nuts, raisins, or chocolates. Here's how it generally works (adapted from My Jewish Learning):
- Each player starts with the same number of pieces (roughly 10–15).
- In each round, every player puts one of their game pieces into a center "pot." They should repeat this step each time the pot is empty or has only one piece left.
- For their turn, each player spins the dreidel, which contains the four Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hey, or shin. Where the dreidel lands determines whether you get or lose pieces from the center pot:
- Nun: You neither receive or lose pieces.
- Gimel: You take everything in the pot.
- Hey: You get half of the pot.
- Shin: You place a game piece into the pot.
- Once you lose all of your game pieces, you are out. (Although you can ask another player for one of their pieces to keep playing, with no guarantee that they will give you one!)
- The game ends when a player wins all of the pieces in the pot.
2. Build Your Own Menorah
Your students can definitely get creative with how they go about building their own personal Hanukkah menorah to use at home. Before this activity, explain what a menorah is with your students. Menorah is the Hebrew word for lamp. There are eight branches of the Hanukkah menorah, which are cumulatively lit on each night of the holiday. For example on the third night, the first three candles are lit. A menorah also includes a shamash (shuh-MOSH), or the "helper" candle that is lit first then used to light the other candles.
While students' families can purchase menorahs locally or online, students can also create their own using a variety of materials. Check out how these students built menorahs using recycled materials including cardboard, Legos, and toy dinosaurs. There's no right answer on how students complete this activity, so long as they include a shamash and meet the eight-candle requirement. If you're in person this year, you may wish to supply them with candle holders and other materials.
3. Read Hanukkah Books
Celebrating Hanukkah can be a good time to read books to students about the holiday, its history, and its meaning. Here are some HMH books that may be good options for your youngest elementary school students:
- Latkes, Latkes, Good to Eat: A Chanukah Story, by Naomi Howland
- Chanukah Lights Everywhere, by Michael J. Rosen and Melissa Iwai
- Happy Hanukkah, Curious George, board book by H. A. Rey and Margret Rey
4. Hanukkah Acrostic Poems
Have your students spell out the word Hanukkah. This can also be a good time to explain that because this is a Hebrew word and Hebrew has a different alphabet, there are multiple ways to spell Hanukkah in English. They may see it sometimes spelled Chanukah, among other transliterations. Tell them the basic story of the holiday or have them conduct research on their own. Then, they should write a word, phrase, or sentence to describe the holiday using each letter of Hanukkah. Tell them to get creative! They can decorate their Hanukkah acrostic poem with images of dreidels, menorahs, or Hanukkah foods such as latkes or jelly-filled doughnuts.
1st & 2nd class have been learning all about the celebration of Hanukkah! Have a look at their acrostic poems and giant menorah! pic.twitter.com/1iAgJbxf7p— Ashbourne CNS (@AshbourneCNS) December 18, 2019
(Image Credit: Múinteoir Áine)
5. Seleucid Empire vs. the Maccabees
Hanukkah is in fact a relatively minor holiday within Judaism, although it is celebrated widely because of its proximity to Christmas. While the holiday is known for the miracle of oil lasting eight days, the holiday commemorates the Maccabees’ revolt against the Seleucid Empire, the Greek-influenced empire that included Syria. The Maccabees were a group of Jewish rebels who refused to worship the Seleucid's Greek gods. Share the story with your class and then have them play a game where one side is the Seleucid Empire and the other is the Maccabees. It can be in person—for example, pairs playing Checkers with each player representing one side of the revolt. Or it can be online, with kids playing two-player online games with each player representing one side of the revolt.
6. Writing Prompt
The story of Hanukkah explores how a supply of oil that was supposed to last for a single day kept a light burning for eight whole days. Have your students write stories discussing instances of when they did something they thought they couldn't do and how or why they were able to persevere. They should be sure to mention the story of Hanukkah in their paragraph or essay.
7. The Eight Days of Hanukkah
Have children plan eight gifts they would give to somebody close to them, for example a classmate, a parent, another family member, or a friend. But tell students they should think of gifts that don't cost any money, such as letters, drawings, or personalized songs. Have them discuss gifts that come from the heart. Explain that sometimes these are the best gifts we can get and receive. Help children make their lists and share their ideas with the class, whether in person or online.
8. Create Paper Dreidels
What You Need:
- Small stapler and staples
- Craft paper (origami paper works best)
- String (optional)
- Cut out two dreidel shapes that are the same size.
- Fold both shapes in half vertically.
- Staple the creases together. Now the dreidel should have four “sides.”
- Draw each of the following Hebrew letters on one of the dreidel's sides using a marker: shin, hey, gimel, nun.
- Make as many as you want and decorate! They can be added to a string for a nice window decoration, or else placed around the house to add a bit of color for the holiday.
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