Traditions Light Up the Holiday
Often referred to as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is an eight day celebration that begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev (a date that falls anywhere from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar). This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 24th and lasts until January 1st.
Hanukkah marks the victory of the Jews, led by the Maccabees, against Greek persecution and religious oppression. When the Maccabees came to rededicate the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, they found only one flask of oil with which to light the menorah (a special candelabra). Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, leaving time to find a fresh supply.
Hanukkah is a time for celebrating with family and friends gathering nightly to remember and honor this miracle by lighting one candle of the menorah each night of the holiday, enjoying traditional holiday foods, singing songs, playing games, and exchanging gifts.
Lighting the Menorah
Lighting the Menorah is the main Hanukkah tradition. It has nine branches, one for each night of the Festival of Lights, plus a shamash, meaning helper or attendant, which is lit first and then used to light the other candles. The shamash always sits a bit higher or lower than the rest of the candles so as to not get confused with the others. The candles are placed on the menorah from right to left, the same direction in which one reads Hebrew. However, when lighting the menorah you move in the opposite direction, using the shamash to the light the candles from left to right. Blessings are recited before or after the candles are lit depending on tradition.
Eating Fried Foods
The miracle of the oil lasting eight days is not only celebrated through the lighting of the menorah, but also in the traditional foods that are eaten. Deep-fried in oil, latkes (fried potato pancakes) are the most popular Hanukkah food topped with applesauce or sour cream. Beef brisket, short ribs, and noodle kugel will likely be on the menu along with dairy products, especially cheese, in commemoration of the Jewish heroine Judith (Yehudit), who helped secure an important military victory with the aid of her homemade cheese. Hanukkah desserts may include decorated holiday sugar cookies, cupcake menorahs, and most importantly, traditional sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts).
Spinning the Dreidel
Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. During the time of Antiochus’ oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top whenever an official or inspector was within sight. A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hei, and Shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham”, a great miracle happened there, referring to the miracle of the oil. Gelt, which are chocolate coins covered with tin foil, are part of this game.
Although giving children money has been a part of Hanukkah for a few centuries, the giving of presents is a relatively new practice due to its close proximity to Christmas. Gifts range from traditional books, dreidels, and fruit and nuts, to giving a donation on someone’s behalf which is considered a “mitzvah” or good deed, to modern gifts and toys.
Hanukkah has become one of the most well-known Jewish holidays. Like most other festive holidays, it is made richer when people get together and enjoy the unique traditions of years past.