Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents


We here at Relax, It's Just God believe that religious literacy and tolerance doesn't just happen. We parents have to make it happen.

Unfortunately, saying the word “Hanukkah” once a year and pointing out burkas in the airport just doesn't cut it. A true religious education requires context. Tolerance requires action. If you want your children to be interested in and respectful of those around them, you must knit a sense of interest and respect into your childrearing — today and throughout the year.

That's why major religious holidays are such fantastic vehicles for religious literacy. And the best part? Thanks to this here Holiday Cheat Sheet, you don't have to know a damn thing about any of them. We're one-stop shopping for on-the-go parents. Click on one of the links and in just a few minutes, you'll find out why that holiday exists, how it's celebrated and fun ways to convey its meanings to kids.

So stop letting those vaguely familiar-sounding holidays pass you by in a blur of Phineas and Ferb re-runs. Seize these small but wonderful opportunities to introduce your kids to religious concepts and figures — while also showing compassion for the people who hold these concepts and figures so dear.


Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Rosh Hashana? (Judaism)


Quick! What the Hell is Diwali? (Hinduism)

Quick! What the Hell is Hajj? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid al-Adha? (Islam)


Quick! What the Hell is Hanukkah? (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Christmas? (Christianity)


Quick! What the Hell is Epiphany? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Mawlid al-Nabi? (Islam)


Quick: What the Hell is St. Valentine's Day? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Ash Wednesday? (Christianity)


Quick! What the Hell is Purim? (Judaism)


Quick! What the Hell is Easter? (Christianity)

Quick! What the Hell is Passover? (Judaism)


Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day? (Buddhism)

Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost? (Christianity)


Quick! What the Hell is Ramadan? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid ul-Fitr? (Islam)

There's more to come, so please keep checking back!

Quick! What the Hell is Hanukkah?


These are the things I'm ever able to remember about Hanukkah: — It rhymes with Monica. — It last for eight days. — The colors are blue and white. — Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel. — And something about a candlestick.

Listen, I’m not proud. I’ve already admitted that my brain, as Thomas Dolby so eloquently put it in the year 1988, is like a sieve. It’s no use coming down on me now. But in my own defense, what I do remember is factual — only the candlestick is called a menorah (rhymes with fedora) and "Dreidel" is not just a song but a game — and not some Kick-the-Can alley game, but a full-on poker game. Like craps. And do you know how much I like craps? Because the answer to that question is really, really a lot.

Of course there’s a bit more to Hanukkah than that — and my friend Mira (who teaches Judaism and speaks fluent Hebrew) was able to tell me all about it. (And she only laughed at my ignorance a couple-few times. Thanks, Mira.) So here it is: your friendly Holiday Cheat Sheet, Episode 4.

Holiday: Hanukkah

Pronounced: HON-i-kuh

AKA: "Festival of Lights"

Religion Represented: Judaism

Date: Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar. In 2012, the dates will be Dec. 8-16. In 2013, they will be Nov. 27-Dec. 5.

Celebrates: The rededication of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple in the 2nd Century BCE.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Hanukkah is a 1. Yep, a measly old 1. Synagogues don’t offer Hannukah services or instruct congregations on what to do for the holiday. HOWEVER: Jewish kids never seem to get the memo on the insignificance of Hanukkah. Every year, they go ape-shit for it — largely because it’s the only Jewish holiday that involves presents. (As you all know, Presents = Ape-shit).

Star of the Show: Judah Maccabee

Back Story: While under Assyrian rule, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was taken from the Jewish people as part of a larger effort at Hellenization (i.e. colonization into ancient Greek culture). But when the ruler at the time issued an outright ban on Jewish religious practices — punishable by death — and placed a statue of Zeus on the alter of the Holy Temple, the Jewish people formed a rebel army and fought back. It took 20 years, but the army, led by Judah Maccabee, took back the Holy Temple, purged it of its “pagan” statue and restored it to its former glory. According to my friend Mira Smeltzer, this was, very likely, the world’s first holy war.

Associated Literary Passages: Books of the Maccabees

Why a Menorah?: As the story goes, the rebels knew it would take many days and nights to clean, repair and restore the temple, but they had only enough lamp oil to last one night. Miraculously, the lamp kept burning, and burning, and burning — for eight days and nights — allowing the temple to be restored quickly and thoroughly. Today, each candle on the menorah represents one of these days, plus there's always one extra to light the rest.

The Food: Traditional eats are fried in oil — a nod to the lamp oil. They include yummy potato pancakes called latkes and jelly-filled donuts.

The Fun: Hannukah is celebrated at sundown each night by lighting the menorah; listening to Hanukkah music, eating, opening presents (one present per night per kid) and, of course, playing the Dreidel game. Parties are commonly held on the Friday during Hanukkah.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: The story of Hanukkah is easily accessible to children. When my daughter heard the lamp-oil story at school, she repeated it back to me at least six times. “There was only this much oil!” she told me, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “And it lasted for EIGHT DAYS!” In addition to telling the tale, you might listen to some Hanukkah music; cook up some latkes, play some Dreidel and maybe even light a menorah. (I bought a vintage menorah on Etsy and love it so much I may never take it down.) Click here for my how-to’s on lighting a menorah, playing Dreidel and making latkes.

And now for my Hanukkah Playlist:

1. Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah by Barenaked Ladies

2. Ocho Kandelikas by Flory Jagoda

3. I Have a Little Dreidel by The Hit Crew

4. Honeyky Hanuka by The Klezmatics

5. (I’m Spending) Hanukkah In Santa Monica by Tom Lehrer

6. World Hanukkah Blessings by Barenaked Ladies

7. Hanu-Calypso by Kenny Ellis

8. The Dreidel Song by Debbie Freedman

9. Latke Clan by The LeeVees

10. The Chanukah Song by Adam Sandler

(By the way, I'm making a few extra music CDs. Let me know if you'd like one!)