Many of us know of at least one family that celebrates Hanukkah, even if we aren’t Jewish. But do we really know what’s behind Hanukkah traditions, and why we celebrate the way we do? It’s actually a pretty interesting story.
Way back in 165 BC, after their second temple in Jerusalem was invaded and their religion outlawed, the Jewish people and their new leader, Judah, led a rebellion against their oppressors. Eventually they won the day, regaining their temple, which was then to be rededicated. This meant that the temple must be cleansed, a new altar built, and all oils that had been polluted gotten rid of. However, olive oil was needed to burn throughout the night in the temple, but untainted oils were in short supply. It would take eight days to press and refine a new batch of oil that those in the temple could burn, and they only had enough oil already available to last them a single day. Miraculously though, as they set about their work, the single day’s worth of oil burned for eight days, and a festival of the same length was then declared to commemorate the miracle. That festival is Hanukkah.
Hanukkah, also known as “the festival of lights,” is celebrated throughout the world on the 25th day of Kislev, the very same day that the Jewish people won back their temple those centuries ago. This is a date marked on the Hebrew calendar, and on the traditional calendar we know, it may fall anywhere from the end of November to the end of December. For eight days, the candles of the menorah (a special nine armed candelabra) are lit left to right as they grow in number by one each night from right to left. This is usually done at or just after sundown, as tradition dictates that the candles must burn for at least thirty minutes into the dark. Then, blessings are recited, songs are sung, and gifts are exchanged between family and friends.
The most common Hanukkah gift given to children is special golden coins called gelt. This is the root meaning behind the foil wrapped chocolate coins that we give today. Another gift that has grown in popularity over the years is the dreidel. A dreidel is a four sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter painted or etched on each side. The four letters used in the United States are Nun, Gimel, Hey, and Shin (NGHS), an acronym for Nes Gadol Haya Sham, meaning, “A great miracle happened here.” These letters are also found on traditional Hanukkah jewelry, including pendants bearing the Jewish Star of David.
Many of the foods eaten during modern Hanukkah festivities are rooted in tradition as well, like latkes (potato pancakes) and small fried doughnuts filled with jam. These and other foods fried or cooked in olive oil are feasted on to commemorate the one day supply of oil burning for eight days. Some Jewish sects also believe that on the last day of Hanukkah, endeavors are most fortuitous and prayers most likely to be answered, and in this spirit will wear the flag of Israel on this day or eat cookies and doughnuts decorated with it.
This year Hanukkah begins on December 21st, so why not give a special gift to all of your Jewish friends and neighbors? Just don’t forget to tell them, “Hanukah hu hag tov!” (Hanukkah is a great Holiday.)