01/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Hanukkah: How to Celebrate (And Clean Up After) the Festival of Lights

"Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared." --Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta

At this time of year, Jewish folks the world over are preparing to celebrate Hanukkah, and have done so for a bazillion years. According to the Old Testament, the Jewish Maccabees (who had just "whooped" the butts of the ruling Syrians) were about to rededicate the newly sanctified Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The blessing required enough purified oil to burn for their eight days of festivities, but there was only one small jar of holy oil to be found--enough to burn for one day. Miraculously, the oil kept a bright flame burning in the temple for all eight days.

Hanukkah, a fun, child-centered holiday celebrated by singing songs and playing children's games is observed by exchanging small presents on each night, and eating special food. (Potato pancakes, anyone?) But most importantly, the holiday is celebrated by lighting a Hanukkah candelabra called a Menorah.

Each night candles are lit: one candle on the first night, two candles on the second night and so on, until there are eight candles lit representing the miracle of the eight days the oil lasted. Known as the "Festival of Lights," the glow of the Hanukkah candles isn't meant to illuminate your home, but to illuminate your house to the outside world, so that anyone who sees the burning candles might be reminded of the holiday's miracle.

I like the simplicity and thoughtfulness of Hanukkah. (It stands in stark contrast to the traditions of my family, which included lugging a big, musty, plastic tree out of the attic and then spending weeks decorating and then un-decorating it.) Each year, my Jewish partner and I light candles at sundown every night of the holiday. With the Menorah set on a shelf below our front hallway mirror, he and I stand together with our dog Jack circling our ankles. As my partner Richard says the Hanukkah prayers in Hebrew and the candles are lit, they beautifully illuminate the entryway transom and dining room windows with their warm twinkling glow.

The distinctive, multi-colored Hanukkah candles must be left to burn out by themselves--usually in about 30 minutes, and, to this neat-freak's chagrin, they often drip onto the silver Menorah or the shelf below.

Did I say dripping candles? Yes, Hanukkah candles do sometimes drip. Sure, there are always distractions from every family ritual, but try to "be in the moment" and don't slip into "freak-out" mode just because something isn't going as planned. Things happen and often the unforeseen can lead to the surprise of a lifetime, like the miracle of Hanukkah in the first place! In the event of sloppy candles, ignore them, say your prayers, chase your loved ones around the house looking for hidden Hanukkah gelt (chocolate "coins" wrapped in gold foil) and eat to your heart's content. It's just a little wax and it can be cleaned up tomorrow -- yes, even a compulsive cleaner like me can chill out once in a while!

When I crawl out from under the covers the next morning, in the bright light of day, I examine the spoils of the prior evening. Candle wax -- whether from Hanukkah candles or from the tapers you burn in Grandma's heirloom sterling candelabra on other holidays -- is a no-brainer to remove from either hard or fabric surfaces.

Even though I'm bald, I keep a hairdryer on hand, and re-purpose it for removing dribbly-drops of paraffin from any hard surface. I just point and shoot...set on the lowest heat setting; it will soften the wax enough to be easily pealed away. Any residue can be gently wiped away with newspaper, paper towel or a household rag. The hairdryer also comes in handy to soften the wick remains of burned-out candles to easily scoop them out of the candleholder, making way for the next set of candles.

For soft surfaces such as linens, rugs, draperies or upholstered furnishings, an electric iron works best. Cover the hardened heap of wax with a few layers of recycled newspaper, and melt the paraffin through the layers with your iron set on the medium, and steamless, setting. As the wax melts, it will "miraculously" blot up into the newspaper. For serious globs of wax, remove the largest clump manually and then use the iron and newspaper method.

(Something to keep in mind: brightly colored candles can be a ton of fun to look at. Neutral or white candles, however, don't contain colored dyes that might actually stain whatever the offending hot wax drips on. But, of course, not everyone can live with neutral, beige or white décor, so always try to find "dripless" candles if you are using colors.)

When all is said and done, with the minor offenses of candle wax aside, the most important message of Hanukkah for me is found in the translation of the Hebrew name of the holiday: Dedication. "The Festival of Lights" can serve as an annual opportunity for all of us, no matter what our belief, for re-dedication.

And what a terrific mantra "re-dedication" provides for our anticipation of the promise of hope and change the new Obama administration pledges. For eight years, many of us have lived in a numb, unbelieving, almost PTSD-like state of mind. The quickly approaching January 20th Inauguration once again holds out the possibilities of our country fulfilling its miraculous promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Through our deeds and faith we can meaningfully observe the significance of Hanukkah by mindfully recommitting to the pursuit of our highest principles, raising our standards of low expectations, reconsidering or affirming our set of progressive values, or dedicating our energies to match our beliefs. The modern miracle of Hanukkah is that each year it gives us all another occasion to commit our lives to a Universal power, to our family and friends, to our community, to our country, to a favorite charity, to healing our planet, to peace on earth, or, if you're like me, to merely rejoicing in the wackiness of being a clean freak!