No evergreen festooned with lights. Or sounds of “Silent Night” playing on iTunes. Or stockings hung from the chimney.
This is the month when most people in Yakima are dreaming of sugarplums or at least thinking ahead to Christmas. But there’s another tradition this time of year: Hanukkah, which also represents a sacred time.
Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, harkens to 165 B.C., or Before the Common Era, to a celebration after the Jews took back their temple in Jerusalem. Opposing soldiers had driven them out of their house of worship, slaughtering and exiling them from the city. After the Jews regrouped, they regained the temple and lit candles to rededicate the holy site.
Because the flames on the candles lasted for eight days, burning olive oil, Hanukkah is also commemorated for eight days and can occur anytime between late November and late December. This year it begins at sundown Sunday.
That’s when the Randy and Jennifer Mitchell family of Yakima will start its celebration.
“It’s a pretty important holiday, especially for kids,” explained their son Elijah, 14.
“It’s a minor holiday but at the same time, it’s not overlooked. A lot of people observe it,” said Serenity, at 19 the oldest of the Mitchells’ eight children.
During the eight-day celebration, the family participates in traditional activities, cooking special foods, making craft items, reading Hanukkah stories and playing games. Serenity, an accomplished pianist who gives piano lessons, plays Hanukkah songs for everyone to sing.
At sundown Sunday, the family will light its menorah, a candle holder with nine candles, eight to commemorate the holiday and a central one used for lighting. The eight candles signify what is called the “Hanukkah miracle,” Levi, 10, explained: “In the temple, they had a menorah that burned oil. They only had enough oil for one day, but the oil from the barrel lasted eight days.”
Each Mitchell child, with the exception of the two youngest, will light a candle on one of the eight nights. (Taleah, 2, will light one with the help of her grandparents while Nathaniel, 1, will wait until next year.) Randy and Jennifer will light a candle together.
The child’s designated lighting night is also considered his or her gift night, which means they give a present to each family member.
While not elaborate, the presents are a nice custom for the children, Jennifer explained.
“It’s hard for kids in our society this time of year; they feel left out when Christmas presents are all around. But Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas.”
The Mitchells encourage small, homemade gifts. Grace, 6, is “making candy for Dad.” Levi enjoys wood working and in past years has made a doll cradle for Grace and a bedroom shelf for Elijah. For his part, Elijah is more a shopper than maker; he enjoys picking out toys for his siblings.
Ezra, 7, mulled whether he’d rather give presents or get them and decided, “Get.”
The religious symbolism of the menorah is more central to the holiday than gifts, however. The Mitchells place two menorahs in front of their dining room windows; then when candles are lit, they say special prayers.
Ezra illustrated the principle that menorahs are meant to be seen to the outside world, to remember the “Hanukkah miracle.” He created a painting of a menorah with an airplane in the distance, full of people looking at the special candelabrum. The Mitchells keep it to exhibit from year to year.
Light from multiple menorahs creates a festive mood, Jennifer noted. “If people are coming over, we encourage them to bring their menorah.”
“Seeing a table full of menorahs is fun,” Serenity adds.
That’s often when the dreidels come out, four-sided spinning tops for playing games. Winners get gelt, or chocolate coins, Levi explained.
One of 4-year-old Havilah’s favorite aspects of Hanukkah is the food. Specifically, “doughnuts.” She and the others help their mother make the confections from scratch.
Another treat is latkes, fried potato pancakes covered with applesauce and sour cream.
Traditionally, some edibles are cooked in oil each day to underscore the significance of the oil that burned for eight days. But those foods are typically heavy, Jennifer noted, so they try to mix in some healthier choices.
The Mitchells blend other practices as well. They explain that they are Messianic Jews, who believe that Christ is the Messiah. However, they don’t commemorate Christian holidays.
“We believe Jesus is the savior, but we celebrate Jewish traditions and holidays,” Serenity said.
Ceremony and custom are important, Jennifer pointed out, especially during Hanukkah.
“Traditions are very strong. Children want to be with family at this time. People have warm feelings around that.”
• Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or firstname.lastname@example.org.