Hanukkah Origins of Sammy Spider

One December morning over twenty years ago, several of the children in my preschool class were discussing the Christmas displays at the local mall and the beautiful lights adorning the homes of their non Jewish neighbors. There was such excitement in their voices and some even said they wished they could celebrate this special holiday. I had been telling them the story of Hanukkah using the holiday books that were available at the time. Many of these books were didactic in the retelling of the Hanukkah story. The illustrations were vivid but all too often I had to adapt the text because it was too sophisticated for young children. Other books focused on the symbols related to Hanukkah but didn’t really tell a story to engage children.

Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for Hanukkah did not match their excitement about Christmas. Now let’s keep in mind that Christmas has many elements that appeal to young children—a baby and his mommy and daddy. And all these warm “fuzzies” are reinforced by a grandfatherly man in a jolly red suit who likes to give children presents and candy.

I didn’t want to compete with Christmas. I just wanted to find a way to engage the children and help them see the beauty of our Jewish holidays. One evening, as I was flipping through the TV channels from Frosty the Snowman to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer to the Little Drummer Boy an idea took hold in my mind. Maybe I could create a Hanukkah character that would engage children.

I know that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus but for me it also celebrates the birth of Sammy Spider. For those of you unfamiliar with Sammy, he is the outsider who sees the beauty in Jewish celebrations and wants to be a part of them. When he wants to spin a dreidel like the little boy in the story he is told “Spider’s don’t spin dreidels, spiders spin webs.” I didn’t realize at the time that Sammy would became a favorite with Jewish children and this catch phrase was later adapted for every holiday story I have written about him. There are now nine Sammy Spider holiday stories, a Haggadah, and activity books for some of the holidays.  Today I am pleased to see that there is a much larger market of excellent Jewish children’s books to assist parents and teachers in sharing our wonderful holiday celebrations, values and traditions with children.