In 2013 the long-standing tradition of American Thanksgiving fell on the first day of the longer-standing Jewish festival of Hanukkah. Because the two calendars track time differently, this is a rare confluence. The last time it happened was 1888 and the next time we can look forward to the joining of these holidays is projected to be over 70-thousand years in the future.
Seizing the opportunity to combine elements of the history and traditions of these two celebrations, I decided to make something for the feast table. One of the central features of the Hanukkah story is the miracle of the oil lamps. An amount of temple lamp oil that would’ve normally only burned for one day miraculously burned for a full eight days, setting the timeframe for future celebrations.
Oil still plays a part in current Hanukkah traditions. Many of the foods associated with the holiday are fried (donuts and potato pancakes). I wanted to draw from this iconography by making a clean-burning olive oil lamp. These lamps are simple, use sustainable fuel, and are very safe — if you knock it over, the oil will not burn. Looking at what normally adorns an autumnal table, and wanting to make this lamp fitting for both a Hanukkah and Thanksgiving table, I saw that a small pumpkin would be a perfect vessel for the lamp.
The Wick's the Trick
I started by making the floating wicks for the lamps. Using a utility knife, I cut ¼-inch discs from the cork of a wine bottle. Each disc got a small hole bored through the center, then one side was covered in aluminum foil. I cut 1 ½-inch lengths from a spool of cotton wick and threaded them through the cork, starting on the aluminum foil side to keep that material from tearing out too much. These wicks will float on top of the olive oil. The foil on the top protects the cork from the burning wick.
After I completed the floating wicks, I turned to the pumpkins. These were the very small variety, usually sold for decoration only. Using a paring knife, I cut the stems out the same way you would with a large pumpkin for a jack-o-lantern. The pumpkins were too small to use a regular spoon to collect the seeds and guts, but a ½-teaspoon measuring spoon worked perfectly. The hollowed out pumpkins were ready for oil. I carefully poured it into the void, bringing the level just to the bottom of the thick skin around the opening.
I adjusted the wicks in the corks so there was about ½-inch on the top side. When the wick floated on the oil, the bottom portion helped anchor it and kept it centered. I waited a few minutes to let the oil permeate the wick. After that, it lit quickly.
Standing back, I took in the glow. The flame took the place of the stem, completing the shape of the pumpkin. And the fire radiated through the orange skin, creating a festive, warm light, perfect for gatherings of friends and family, and traditions old or new.