Lighting the menorah has always been my favorite part. As a child, I loved being the one to move the shamash (the candle that lights all the others) down the row of candles, creating a brilliant festival of lights in the darkroom. Together my family and I would recite the Hanukkah blessings in our own cadences and then break into song with “Maoz Tzur” or “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.”
My husband, Kevin, grew up in a culturally Chinese family, and they also enjoy a festival of lights. In the first month of the lunar calendar, Kevin and his parents celebrate the Lantern Festival. On the evening of the Lantern Festival, my mother-in-law remembers the streets of her childhood filled with vendors, parades, lion dances and fireworks. Delicate paper lanterns lined the streets adding to the festive feeling. Kevin, who grew up in the United States, ate yuan xiao, soup made of rice balls filled with sweet red bean, to commemorate the light-filled holiday. Primarily served in the winter, yuan xiao is a warm, delicious treat.
This December, from our home in Philadelphia, Kevin and I will celebrate a festival of lights of our very own. For the first time, we won’t be visiting my out-of-state family or lighting the menorah with friends. While my heart yearns for these Hanukkah get-togethers, this holiday season offers an opportunity to combine elements from our two bright and cozy winter festivals.
As a multicultural family, we are constantly thinking about ways to create new customs, investigating what we know—or often what we think we know of our backgrounds—and forming new Jewish Chinese traditions that can develop and deepen over the years.
With every cultural experience, we ask each other about the traditional stories of our ancestors; it helps us understand the themes and lessons of the holidays. During our festival of lights, we commemorate miracles twice over. Both the Lantern Festival and Hanukkah celebrate righteousness and justice prevailing over senselessness and evil.
On the first night of Hanukkah, I will tell the story of the Maccabees, underdogs who defeated their oppressors and restored the Second Temple in Jerusalem. After the Jews’ victory, the Temple menorah burned for eight nights. So we light our candles for eight nights to remind ourselves of the miracle of Hanukkah.
This year, Kevin will share a legend of the Lantern Festival (there are several). In my favorite tale, which dates back to the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 AD), a fairy instructs villagers who angered the emperor (they murdered his goose) to light lanterns. The community tricks the emperor into believing that the town is on fire and the emperor, seeing the village punished by flames, leaves them undisturbed. The lantern tradition carries on year after year.
In both stories, light brings life, radiance and tradition into people’s homes as as both Jewish and Chinese communities continue to light menorahs and lanterns to this day. We share the menorah’s glow in our windows and historically in China, households placed their lanterns at their doors to brighten the streets.
Winter evenings during a pandemic can be long, and games provide a very welcome distraction. This Hanukkah, we plan to play dreidel. I will point out the dreidel’s four Hebrew letters and explain the consequences of rolling a nun, gimel, hey and shin, as well as the meaning of the phrase “Nes gadol haya sham.” (A great miracle happened there.) Even with two adults, the game certainly provides a few rounds of laughter and fun.
Games also play a central role in the Lantern Festival. Traditionally, revelers write riddles on lit lanterns for the community to solve. Often, these riddles are quite difficult and play on the different meanings of Chinese characters. Try out this popular Chinese riddle:
There is a white chubby doll sitting in a pockmarked house, entangled in a red net. What is it? (Hint: It’s a food.)
This year, we will try some riddles alongside our game of dreidel. The two activities complement each other perfectly, one is a mind game and the other is a game of luck. We will likely stick to English language riddles to make it easier. (By the way, did you guess the answer?)
Finally, one of the greatest joys of being at home together right now is that we can cook our favorite meals. This Hanukkah, we plan to combine Jewish and Chinese food traditions. Kevin’s top foods happen to be potatoes and chive dumplings, one of his family’s staple meals growing up. Naturally, chive latkes are on our menu for this year, even if we have to experiment a few times to get the ratios right.
We also plan to celebrate Hanukkah with one of my favorite Chinese desserts, mooncakes! Mooncakes are typically consumed during the Mid-Autumn Festival, but you can now find the lightly sweet red bean pastries year-round. My mother-in-law makes her own delicious mooncakes from scratch, and I’m confident she will help me through the steps of making our own Hanukkah mooncakes.
As my husband and I plan for this year’s festival of lights, our two menorahs patiently wait on our bookshelf. Owning a pair of menorahs—one new to us and one from my childhood—means we can both partake in my favorite part of the evening. This holiday season, Kevin and I will each hold a lit shamash and together create light, warmth and new traditions as the flame ignites each Hanukkah candle.
And, if you didn’t guess yet, the answer to the riddle is peanuts.