It’s my kids’ favorite holiday, and we’re getting ourselves ready for eight nights full of celebration. This year, Hanukkah starts at sundown on December 8th, so we've just barely had time to change gears from eating Thanksgiving turkey to decorating the house with dreidels and menorahs.
For those of you who don’t know, Hanukkah is a celebration of the Jews' victory in a battle to reclaim their temple from the Syrian army. In order to rededicate their temple, the Jews needed oil to light their “eternal flame” candle. They thought they only had enough oil to burn for one day. However, a miracle occurred and the oil lasted for eight days, giving the Jews enough time to make more oil. This is why the holiday is called the “Festival of Lights” and is celebrated by lighting candles for eight nights.
Any holiday can disrupt a family’s routine. One that is eight nights long can really change things up. My son, with all his sensory issues, can’t sit through an organized Temple Tots celebration or anything like that. So for a successful holiday, we’ll be doing all our celebrating at home, just like I did when I was a kid. And this year, we’ll be making our Hanukkah sensory friendly.
We’ll be celebrating the eight nights of Hanukkah with all eight senses - the seven senses of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, vestibular, proprioception and introception. Here’s how our family will focus on one sense for each night:
Night 1: Proprioception On this night, we’ll light the first candle in the menorah and focus on our joints and muscles. This is a great way to start the holiday week, because this is what my son craves the most. Our activities are also a perfect way to kick off our celebration. To get him the proprioceptive input he needs, my son and I will first start by cleaning up the house – dusting and vacuuming and putting away all the toys. He’ll also be in charge of carrying the presents into our living room for that first night. This heavy lifting will help exercise all the parts of his body, and stacking the presents in piles for each family member will help with his muscle control. On this first night, we’ll start to make some traditional Hanukkah desserts to be cooked in oil, so I’ll have him stir up the cookie batter for extra sensory input in the kitchen. All this heavy work and controlled movements will help us build up his sensory deposits for the rest of the holiday week. By starting off with proprioception, we’re setting ourselves up for a calm week ahead.
Night 2: Smell Because the Hanukkah holiday celebrates the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, traditional Hanukkah foods are cooked in oil. This brings quite a lot of new smells into our house, since we don’t usually cook this way. My son is recently very sensitive to smells. To help with this, we’ll start off slowly by cooking one traditional food each night, plus at least one familiar and appealing smell. This night, we’ll make potato latkes (crispy potato pancakes) cooked in oil, and bake the pumpkin cookies from the batter we made the night before.
Night 3: Taste Just like with smell, there are a lot of different things to eat for Hanukkah. Traditional foods include potato latkes, applesauce, doughnuts, and cookies. My son is particular to certain textures, and latkes, applesauce and doughnuts fall into the category of “non-preferred” foods. I’ve learned enough over the years to not force him to eat anything he doesn’t like because it doesn't end well. However, my hope is that by including him in the preparation of all the foods (helping measure out the ingredients for the latkes, mixing up the batter for the cookies) it will encourage him to try the different foods. I’m also not above a little bribery. Three bites of latkes may equal one pumpkin cookie. We’ll see how desperate we get.
Night 4: Touch One of our favorite activities to do as a family is to make Hanukkah decorations. After lighting the candles on the fourth night, we’ll sit down to make our own dreidels. While the song says “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel…I made it out of clay”, we’ll actually use Model Magic to make our homemade dreidels and menorahs. I first discovered Model Magic a few years ago at my son’s preschool. They used it instead of play dough because a child in his class had a wheat allergy. Model Magic is fantastic. It’s easier to use than actual clay and is great to work with. My son gets great deep pressure input from rolling out the Model Magic and the kids have fun mashing up the different colors. It will dry as hard as clay in 24 hours and cleans up much better than play dough. The decorations they create will last us through the rest of the holiday and into the next year.
Night 5: Vestibular The dreidel game is a great game to play during the Hanukkah week. My grandmother sends the kids their own dreidels every year filled with chocolate gelt (coins). A dreidel is a spinning top with four sides, each side displaying a different Hebrew letter. In the dreidel game, the chocolate gelt is put into a pile in the middle of all the players. Each player takes a turn spinning the top. The amount of chocolate gelt that the player gets depends on which letter is showing when the dreidel stops spinning. My son loves the sensation of being dizzy, so he spends a lot of time twirling in circles in our house or on the swings. Since the vestibular sense is all about balance and spatial sense, this year I’ve made up the “be the dreidel” game. Instead of using an actual dreidel, I’ll have the boys take turns being a dreidel themselves. I’ve made large signs of each of the four Hebrew letters to spread out on the floor. Whichever one they touch (or stumble to) after I say “stop!” will be the letter they land on as the “dreidel”. I can only imagine how much amusement this will bring while providing my son the vestibular input he needs.
Night 6: Hearing One of my most favorite memories of my childhood Hanukkah celebrations is singing the prayers and songs as we light the candles. However, this is one of the reasons we can’t go to an organized Hanukkah celebration. Our last trip to temple was when my son was two and he stood on a chair and yelled at the Rabbi to “stop singing!!!” While the Rabbi wasn’t fazed, I was mortified and never returned. Not wanting to lose this tradition, we keep our singing at home now. This way we can sing “Hanukkah O Hanukkah” and “I Have A Little Dreidel” as loudly or as quietly as we want, or not at all. It helps keep the tradition alive in our family while being respectful of my son’s sensory sensitivities.
Night 7: Sight On this night, we’ll be lighting seven candles on each menorah, plus the “Shamash” or helper candle. This is the extra candle that is used to light all the other candles. Because my two oldest boys are old enough now to each light their own menorah, we’ll have 16 candles lit for the seventh night. These lights are mesmerizing for my son. Something about all those flickering flames just calms him. So we’ll spend quite a lot of time just staring at the candles in the middle of the table. It’s one of the few times during the holiday week that my son is relaxed enough to sit for an extended period of time. We’ll use this time to reflect on how the week has been going so far, or read more of the story of Hanukkah, or just sit quietly as a family.
Night 8. Introception According to SPD Life, interoception is “the sense responsible for detecting internal regulation response”. It’s how our bodies tell us if we’re hungry, thirsty, or if we need to go to the bathroom. It works in conjunction with the proprioceptive and vestibular senses to help us regulate our bodies internally. For our last night of Hanukkah, we can look at introception in a literal and figurative way. In the literal sense, on the eighth night, our bodies are full. We’ve enjoyed some great food and drink and had lots of activities to fill up all our senses. My son does his best job regulating his bodily functions when his sensory diet is varied and full. We’ve done that by focusing on different activities each night for each sense. In the figurative sense, we are full of Hanukkah by this last night. All of our presents are opened, every spot in the menorah is filled with candles, and we’re ready to bring ourselves out of celebration mode and move into wintertime. It’s time to get ourselves back into our regular daily routine.
Just in time for Christmas vacation.
Happy Hanukkah Everyone!
“I have a little dreidel
I made it out of clay,
And when it’s dry and ready
Then dreidel I shall play.” – I Have A Little Dreidel (traditional Hanukkah song)