Your Guide to Hanukkah

I’m here to burst your bubble: Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas.

The holiday’s name:

First comes first, the spelling. Hanukkah is a Hebrew word, so the English translation is spelled countless different ways and none of them is more correct than another. In Hebrew, it is חנוכה, which is pronounced Cha-new-kah (with the guttural “ch” that sounds like you’re gargling water). Then there’s hannukah, hannuka, Hanukah, Hanukkah – think of as many combinations of these letters and you’d probably be right.

 

Image via IsraellyCool

 

The calendar:

Next, the time of year. Here begins the bubble bursting: Hanukkah does not always fall around Christmas. It doesn’t even fall at the same time every year. The Jewish calendar is lunisolar (as opposed to the calendar we all use, the Gregorian, which is strictly solar), so it is based on both the sun and the moon. The months go with the moon’s cycle, so they’re generally 30 days long. But the years go with the sun’s cycle, so there are four seasons.

The beginning of each month depends on when the new moon shows up, so Hanukkah falls on different days every year. Sometimes Hanukkah and Christmas overlap completely, whereas other times, like a few years ago, Jews celebrated Hanukkah during Thanksgiving.

Hanukkah, unlike Christmas, lasts eight days, or as Adam Sandler put it, “eight crazy nights.” We’ll get to what Jews do during those eight crazy nights later.

The story:

Hanukkah is not a biblical story, but is found in the Book of Maccabees. The basics of the Hanukkah story involve the three elements all non-biblical Jewish festivals seem to have: Jewish victimhood, a miracle of God and hope (we Jews often refer to this pattern as “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!”). Around the year 165 B.C.E, the Syrian king Antiochus and his army looted the holiest place in the Jewish world, the Temple in Jerusalem. A Jewish group known as the Maccabees led a large-scale rebellion against Antiochus and the Syrian army, and after two years of fighting, drove the Syrian army out of Jerusalem. One of the Maccabees, Judah, united the Jewish people to cleanse their temple, rebuild the central altar and relight the sacred candelabra, called the Menorah, in order to rededicate the Temple to God.

 

Image via Amazon

 

Here’s where the miracle comes in– while trying to relight the Menorah, the priests (Temple employees) could only find enough pure oil to relight the Menorah for one day, even though it was meant to be lit every day. Miraculously, the Menorah stayed lit for eight days, enough time to get new pure oil – hence the eight crazy nights of Hanukkah. This miracle led to a renewal of Jewish hope after years of Syrian oppression, and the establishment of the holiday of Hanukkah to remember the struggle and triumph of the day.

The practice:

So now you know why Jews celebrate this holiday. Let’s look at how we celebrate:

The menorah is the symbol of the holiday because of its relighting during the Hanukkah story.  The menorah that was in the Temple had seven branches, but because of the eight-day miracle we light a special one with eight branches, which we call a Hanukkiah. Jews today celebrate Hanukkah by lighting their own personal hanukkiahs, lighting one additional candle every night of the holiday, until the whole menorah is lit.

Food: Jewish holidays cannot exist without food (not really, but it’s awfully common). Because of the miracle of the oil in the Temple, Hanukkah is celebrated by using oil in as many foods as possible. Think of it as the Texas State Fair, but Jewish style. One of the most popular delicacies are latkes – fried potato pancakes and sufganiyot – fried jelly donuts. These foods are not eaten exclusively, so imagine when Hanukkah fell during Thanksgiving and Jews got latke-turkey sandwiches, and just let your mouth water.

 

Image via Half Hour Meals

 

 

Image via MyJewishLearning

 

A Jewish tradition also arose of giving kids chocolate coins, known as gelt, which is not only delicious, but teaches them lessons in giving charity and being generous. Games with a Hanukkah theme, like the dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, are also played from the olden days when Jewish education was prohibited by the Romans, so Jews got crafty and outsmarted the Romans by using spinning tops and chocolate to teach.

 

Photo via ZSource

 

One of the biggest reasons Hanukkah has been thought of as a Jewish Christmas is because of the tradition of giving gifts. While giving gelt (chocolate coins) is an age-old Hanukah custom, giving presents is relatively new. Whereas Jews in olden days would give gifts during the holiday of Purim, which usually falls around March or April, the custom switched to Hanukah with the mass emigration of Jews to America in the 19th century. Christmas is a national holiday in America, and is celebrated with giving gifts, among other things. So one way for Jews to fit in their new country was to adapt their own gift-giving custom to match their fellow Americans. So while Hanukkah is in no way a Jewish Christmas, Jews have Christians to thank for eight days of gift giving.  

 

Is your bubble sufficiently burst? If you are still looking for a parallel holiday to Hanukah, look to Independence Day – both holidays involve a struggle and triumph for freedom, and what’s more important is that they are both currently celebrated by lighting things on fire and overeating fried foods.

 

Photo courtesy of Amazon