For probably no reason beyond proximity on the calendar, Hanukkah and Christmas tend to get lumped together. Traditionally, the holidays actually have little in common.
But one shared tradition -- and one that has become even more so as lines have blurred -- is the exchange of gifts. But with one important distinction. Whereas Christmas is celebrated on one day, Hanukkah stretches over eight. As a result, the gifts tend to be smaller. Treats and other food gifts are particularly popular during the Jewish festival of lights.
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Favorite Hanukkah treats include chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil (called gelt), as well as cookies in the shapes of menorahs and dreidels often decorated in blue, white, silver or gold, common colors for the holiday. Also popular are rugelach, bite-sized crescent pastries filled with nuts, chocolate, marzipan or fruit preserves.
Giving -- and consuming -- yeasty jelly-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot, which are fried in the oil that is so symbolically important to Hanukkah, is a tradition with Israeli roots, but is becoming more popular in the U.S., says Laura Frankel, a food educator and executive chef at the Spertus Center for Jewish Learning & Culture in Chicago.
But she favors another -- more American -- Hanukkah tradition, the giving of pretzels that have been dipped in chocolate and other toppings.
She and her pastry chef husband started by making them with their children, but then Frankel extended the family fun by teaching children at local schools to make the salty treats as a way to share the story of Hanukkah.
"It's great fun because the kids love making the dough into all kinds of shapes," says Frankel. "And it's a food activity you can actually let them do, unlike frying latkes or sufganiyot in hot oil."
Though Frankel's own children now are adults, she still goes to the schools to spread Hanukkah pretzel love each year.
The kids especially love the chocolate dipping part, says Frankel, and topping them with sugary blue and white sprinkles. And homemade pretzels make great gifts for adults as well, especially when enveloped in good chocolate, perhaps even dusted with a bit of edible gold leaf.