NEW YORK - Hanukkah is a joyful holiday that comes with its own rituals, foods, games, songs and stories. That makes it easy to throw a party, especially since the traditions can be enjoyed by guests of all ages and backgrounds.
Everyone loves latkes and the sight of those beautiful menorah candles lighting up a dark winter's night. But the parties are not only a way for Jewish families to share their heritage; they also provide a way to connect with friends and neighbors at a busy time of year. Here are some ideas for creating the perfect Hanukkah party.
LATKES: You cannot have Hanukkah without latkes. These are pancakes made from shredded potatoes, onions and eggs, with a little salt and flour mixed in, then fried golden brown and served with applesauce and sour cream. You can buy them frozen and heat them up to ease your burdens as hostess, but for me, making them from scratch is part of the fun.
The only problem is, latkes cannot be prepared much in advance. Raw potatoes discolor and reheated latkes never seem crispy enough. So get everything else ready for the party first, and about 90 minutes before your guests arrive, start shredding potatoes. My secret to perfect latkes: Squeeze water out of the shredded potatoes and onions before you add eggs. Just pick the mixture up by the handful and wring it out as you would a wet washcloth. This keeps the latkes from falling apart and helps them fry up nice and crisp.
I keep the first latkes hot on cookie trays in the oven until party time, and I continue frying as guests arrive until the last batch is done. But I'm never alone in the kitchen. The delicious smell draws folks in. Some clamor for a hot latke right out of the pan; others want a lesson in latke-making.
OTHER FOOD: Fried food is traditional for Hanukkah, so I buy readymade chicken wings. (Cooking latkes is all the frying I can handle for one event.)
A platter of sliced fruit with toothpicks is a nice contrast to all that grease.
And pasta salad is an easy main dish to prep in advance and serve at room temperature. Look for pasta shaped like Stars of David at specialty stores and online.
TREATS: Traditional sweets include jelly doughnuts (called sufganiyot) and chocolate coins covered in metal foil (called gelt). Put a bowl of chocolate gelt on the table, or hand out party bags with a dreidel and some chocolate coins in each.
For Hanukkah cookies, use plain dough and cookie cutters shaped like dreidels, menorahs and Stars of David. For a shortcut, roll out readymade slice-and-bake vanilla dough. Decorate with mini M&Ms or blue-and-white sprinkles, the colors of the Israeli flag.
Children will love cutting and decorating their own cookies during the party, but you can't be in charge of that and fry latkes at the same time. Hire a teenager to help or see if another adult will supervise.
DREIDELS: The famous Hanukkah song goes, "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay." Well, you can make dreidels out of clay as a party activity. Easy, inexpensive kits, like Rite Lite's "Dreidel Out of Clay," can be purchased at Judaica stores and online. Again, a teenager or another adult should supervise while you tend to other hosting duties.
To play dreidel, small wooden or plastic dreidels are best. You'll also need small coins (pennies in the United States), 10 for each player and more for a communal pot. If you do not have enough pennies, use dried beans, wrapped chocolate gelt or even poker chips.
Each side of the dreidel bears a different Hebrew letter. The letter facing up when the top stops spinning determines what happens in the game. Make a chart for the rules so everyone can follow.
Each player gets a turn to spin. If the dreidel lands on nun, you get none - no pennies from the pot. If it lands on hay, the player gets half the pot of pennies.
If it's shin, "put one in," meaning the player donates a penny to the pot.
If it's gimel, think "Gimme!" The player gets all the pennies in the communal pile. Replenish from the pennies you put aside, or have each player donate a few.
Play till all the pennies in the pot are gone. Players keep the money they win.
CRAFTS, SONGS AND STORIES: Set up a table for art activities for younger children. Judaica stores and Web sites offer all sorts of Hanukkah-themed coloring books, stickers, dreidels to decorate and other projects.
It also is fun to bring children together to hear a dramatic reading of a Hanukkah story, sing songs, or even do a circle dance if you have space. Our favorite read-aloud story was "Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins," but there also are many children's versions of the traditional story of the miracle of Hanukkah, when a candelabra with only enough oil to last one night remained lit for eight nights.
Make or buy a collection of Hanukkah songs as background music, or for an older crowd, use klezmer music. For hipsters, go with Matisyahu's Jewish reggae-hip hop sound.
CANDLES: Menorahs are lit at sundown. I have a collection of menorahs, enough so that a half-dozen of the youngest guests can each pick one to light with an older child or adult supervising. Make sure you have enough candles and set the menorahs in a spot where they will not pose a fire hazard.
Many of your guests will not know how to sing the prayers, but all you need is a few strong voices to lead. With everyone gathered around in celebration, and the candles casting their warm light, it's sure to feel like a magical moment.