Let Hanukkah be Hanukkah

The candelabra should have eight candles in a straight line with a separate holder -- usually high and in the middle -- for the "servant" candle that is used to light the others.

The purpose of Hanukkah menorahs is to publicize the miracle at the heart of the "Festival of Lights," when tradition says a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels liberated the temple from their Greek oppressors. Thus, most families place their menorahs in front windows facing a street.

So far, so good.

The lighting of the first candle should be at sundown on the first night of the eight-day season, which begins on Friday (Dec. 15) this year. Hanukkah candles should burn at least 30 minutes and it's forbidden to use their light for any purpose other than viewing or meditating.

Blessings are recited before the first candle is lit, starting with: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah." Each night, another candle is added -- with eight burning at the end of the season.

That's it. That's what Jews are supposed to do during Hanukkah. They're supposed to light the candles and give thanks to God.

It's all about lights shining in darkness.

"This is a simple holiday with a simple message and it isn't supposed to be all that complicated," said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, the largest umbrella group for Orthodox Jews in North America.

"You come home from work, you light the candles, you say the blessings and then you sit down with your kids and play games with dreidels. ... It's pretty small stuff compared with all of the emotions of Passover."

Some Jewish families will sing Hanukkah songs and fry some potato pancakes called "latkes," homemade donuts or other festive foods using hot oil -- a key symbol in the season. Many parents give their children small gifts each night, such as coins or chocolates wrapped in gold foil to resemble coins.

This is where, for many, the Hanukkah bandwagon starts to get out of control. As the Jewish Outreach Institute Hanukkah website bluntly states: "Hanukkah is the most widely celebrated American Jewish holiday, possibly because it is a fun, child-centered occasion."

Everyone knows why Hanukkah keeps getting bigger and bigger, said Weinreb, who also has worked as a psychologist specializing in family issues.

"How can a Jewish kid growing up in America or anywhere else in the Western world not get swept up, to one degree or another, in the whole business of Christmas? The music is everywhere and the decorations are everywhere. Many of your school friends are having parties and they're all excited about the gifts they're going to get," he said.

"From a Jewish perspective, all of this is a rabbi's worst nightmare. You want to find a way to say, 'That's not us.' But, in the end, many people lose control."

Before you know it, someone else's Christmas tree turns into a holiday tree and, finally, into something called a Hanukkah bush.

The end result is ironic, to say the least. Hanukkah is supposed to be a humble holiday about the need for Jews to resist compromising their beliefs in order to assimilate into a dominant culture. However, for many families it has become the biggest event on the Jewish calendar -- because it is so close to the all-powerful cultural earthquake that some people still call "Christmas."

Those old-fashioned notions about giving children a few modest Hanukkah gifts have evolved into expectations of a nightly procession of toys, clothing and electronic goodies. And, in many of America's 2.5 million households with one Jewish parent and one Christian parent, the rites of the shopping mall have been blended to create the pop-culture reality called "Chrismukkah."

All of this is easy to understand and hard to resist.

"One gift a night for eight nights is just commercialism, pure and simple. That has more to do with Toys 'R' Us than it does with Judaism," said Weinreb. "Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas and we all know that. Hanukkah is what it is. We just need to do what we are supposed to do and let the holiday take care of itself."