The lure of Christmas magic is hard to ignore, and Jewish families can get sucked into the frenzy, essentially making Hanukkah seem more like a Jewish Christmas.
The tradition of giving presents during Hanukkah is predominantly American and families may struggle to keep the focus on family and Jewish heritage, rather than the glitz and glitter of the December holidays.
"Gift-giving has been associated with the festival because it's tied to Christmas and the cultural nature," said Rabbi Josh Wohl of Duncansville.
(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski) Sam Wohl, 5, of Duncansville places candles in the menorah in preparation for Hanukkah. Starting with one candle, an additional candle will be lit on each succeeding day until all are lit on the eighth day of the holiday.
In the Jewish faith, Hanukkah is a minor holiday, which has gained significance because of its proximity to Christmas.
"A lot of Jews don't really know what Hanukkah is about. Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas. We light candles, and then we give presents. It's a lack of understanding, and they make it into the Jewish Christmas," Wohl said.
Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. The story behind the celebration dates back to 167 BCE. It is based on documented historical events when Syrian Greeks took over the Temple in Jerusalem, defaced it and destroyed the Scriptures. The Jews rebelled, recaptured the Temple and had the freedom to worship again.
"It's not a children's story. It's a pretty bloody story. What we try and focus on and the message we share with our children is that even small groups of people can make a big difference.
"It's important to stand up for things you believe in, and it's important to stand up for your faith, even if there are people out there who are trying to take it away from you," Rabbi Audrey Korotkin of Temple Beth Israel said.
The lights are symbols of hope, community and faith, Korotkin said.
"You hear only about having enough oil for one night and it lasted for eight nights."
"That's not the real essence of Hanukkah. The kids learn the triumph over a secular world, the freedom to worship, the freedom of religion," said Bill Wallen, executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation.
Lighting a candle every night is a symbol, not only of the miracle of the oil, but also a celebration of the victory of a small group of Jews who fought for religious freedom.
"The wonderful thing about Hanukkah is it's one of the festivals that's meant to be celebrated as a family. It's very much a home-based holiday," Korotkin said.
Typically, families gather around the dinner table and light candles in succession each night for eight nights.
Over time Hanukkah has become a gift-giving holiday, with some Jewish families not wanting the holiday to seem inferior to Christmas.
"It's hard to be a Jewish kid in a Christian country where everyone is getting gifts. The gift-giving and exchanging is a cultural thing," Wallen said. "There's nothing the matter with having fun, and there's nothing the matter with getting gifts and feeling good about being Jewish."
Jewish families often refer to the conundrum of Christmas and Hanukkah as the "December Dilemma."
They want their kids to enjoy Hanukkah, and some families celebrate some of the secular parts of Christmas like Santa Claus and the Christmas tree or lights. Wohl advised against doing this unless the families are interfaith.
"Especially in Altoona in the culture that is so Christian, I think the gifts can sometimes be elevated because we don't want our kids to be envious and say 'I wish we had Christmas.' Gifts have taken a real prominence that hasn't been associated with Hanukkah," Wohl said.
Wohl, who has two children, Sam, 5, and Michah, 20 months, focuses on time with family during Hanukkah, but he admits he has the benefit and knowledge of being a rabbi.
Lighting the candle on the menorah every night is something Wohl likes to do with his children as an example of "seeing light in times of darkness."
Wohl also stresses the giving of the spirit, instead of gifts. Hanukkah parties are held at the synagogue and Sunday school where the story of Hanukkah is taught. Children play the dreidel game and often sing songs and do Hanukkah craft projects.
"It's family time. It's something people can do together," Wohl said.
Giving to charity is also a part of Hanukkah.
Michael and Heather Holzer of Altoona like to teach their 17-month-old son Ari about Hanukkah by singing songs and reading to him.
Ari helps light the candles every night, and he places money in the tzedakah box (a charity box).
Ari will open a gift every night of Hanukkah, but the Holzers are trying to make sure the presents aren't the focus.
"One of the things we could do to keep the focus off gifts is basically not make a big deal out of it, make more of an effort out of giving to charity, making it more out of visiting family and friends," Holzer said. "Those are the things he will remember, not what gifts he got."
Spending time with people you love is the most important aspect of the holiday, Holzer said.
Eating meals together during Hanukkah allows families to discuss the Jewish faith and what it means to be Jewish.
"It's all about being together and sharing time together and enjoying the atmosphere with the people you love," Korotkin said.