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What is Hanukkah? Debunking the Festival of Lights

December is known as the holiday season because so many faiths and religions have holidays at the end of the calendar. During this time of year, I find myself surrounded by red and green decorations and the sound of popular Christmas tunes. Rarely do I see signs or decorations commemorating the other major wintertime holidays such as Ramadan, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. I think the lack of representation stems from a lack of knowledge surrounding these holidays. So, I’m going to tell you a bit more about the holiday I celebrate during this time of year: Hanukkah. 

You might be asking yourself why there are so many spellings of the word Hanukkah. Hanukkah has many spellings because there is no letter in English that corresponds to the first letter of Hanukkah in Hebrew. I personally like to use Hanukkah, but my synagogue uses Chanukah, for example. The amount of Ns, Ks and Hs doesn’t make a difference. There is really no incorrect spelling to choose. They all mean the same thing.  

Hanukkah translates to “dedication” in Hebrew because the holiday commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where the Jews rose up against the Greeks. Around 200 B.C.E., Judea came under the control of Antiochus III, who allowed the Jews to practice their religion. Antiochus IV, however, forbade the Jews from practicing and forced them to worship Greek gods. He erected a statue of Zeus in the temple and sacrificed pigs, a non-Kosher animal, inside the walls. Then, the Maccabees rebelled against Antiochus and eventually drove him out of the nation. Judah Maccabee, the leader, then cleansed the Second Temple and lit the menorah, which was supposed to remain lit every night. 

Now here comes the miracle. Even though there was only enough oil to keep the menorah lit for one night, the flames remained for eight nights, allowing the Maccabees to find a new supply. Jewish sages then declared an eight-day festival of lights to celebrate this miracle. Thus, Hanukkah occurs every year on the 25th of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which usually correlates to November or December in the Gregorian calendar. Interestingly, Hanukkah is actually not a major holiday because the events which inspired it occurred after the Torah was written. Nevertheless, it is probably the most well-known Jewish holiday. 

We celebrate the Hanukkah by lighting a hanukiah every night for eight days. Note that a hanukiah has nine candles, while a menorah has seven, and that hanukiahs are exclusively for Hanukkah, while menorahs are used year-round. Some families celebrate with presents each of the eight nights, although many do not. The present tradition stems from the tradition of giving and receiving presents on Christmas and is by no means an integral part of the celebration.  It is traditional to eat fried food on Hanukkah to commemorate the oil lasting for eight days. 

I usually celebrate with my family, and we eat latkes (potato pancakes), gelt (chocolate coins) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). We usually do a small gift exchange, with each family member assigned to one other. Sometimes we even do a donut eating contest or decorate gingerbread houses (non-denominational ones, though). I also play dreidel with my cousins, which is a game where you spin a top, and depending on what side it lands on, you win a certain amount of gelt. I also love listening to Hanukkah songs, and I definitely recommend listening to them if you’re curious. 

This Hanukkah will probably be different in so many ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I know that it will be for me. So, if you’re celebrating, I hope you can take a moment to reflect on the miracle of lights. And if you’re not celebrating Hanukkah, I hope you learned something new from this article. Chag Chanukah Sameach (Happy Hanukkah)! 

Annie Epstein

Northwestern '23

Annie is from New York City and is studying Journalism, Psychology and Jewish Studies at Northwestern University. In her free time, she loves to bake and listen to Broadway soundtracks.
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