While the majority of the world focuses on Christmas in December, many other religions have sacred holidays during the last month of the year. During either late November or December, the Jewish celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, eight nights representing a miracle that happened at the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The actual dates of Hanukkah change each year due to how the Hebrew calendar aligns with the Gregorian calendar, which is what is commonly used today. In 2016, the beginning of Hanukkah falls on December 24th, lasting eight nights until January 1st.
The name Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukah, comes from the Hebrew word for “to dedicate”, since it celebrates when the Maccabean Jews recaptured Jerusalem. The reason that there are different spellings is that the first part of the word, what’s represented by the “ch” is not actually a sound in the English language. It’s a similar pronunciation to the “ch” in the Scottish word loch.
The celebration of Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple during the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BC). Preserved in the First and Second Maccabees, which aren’t included in the Palestine version of the Tanakh (a Jewish holy book), but comes from the Alexandrian version, and both books appear in the Catholic and Christian Orthodox Old Testament.
The celebration of Hanukkah comes from the when Judea was part of the Syrian Kingdom. The Jews were originally allowed to practice their religion freely, but this all changed in 167 BC. The Syrians had invaded the city of Judea again and sacked the Holy Temple, outlawing the practice of Judaism. The Syrians ordered a temple to Zeus to be built where the Jewish temple was, and the Jews revolted. Originally lead by Mattiyahu, a priest, and his five sons, his son Judah would take over when Mattiyahu died. When the Hebrews had managed to recapture the temple, the first thing they needed to do was rededicate the temple. In order for this to be done, the Hebrews needed to burn kosher oil blessed by a high priest. However, the temple only had enough oil for one night, where as it would take eight days to make more oil. The miracle that is celebrated during Hanukkah is the fact that, against all odds, the oil lasted all eight nights.
During the eight day celebration of Hanukkah, the Jews celebrate each night with a series of rituals. The most recognizable for those outside of the Jewish religion is the lighting of the Menorah each night. While traditionally this is a candle or oil based light, in places where flames are not allowed, such as college dorms, electric lights are also acceptable. Starting with one light on the first night, each night after the number of lights lit is increased by one. The shamash, meaning attendant or sexton, is an extra light that is also lit each night, and given a distinct location in the ceremony. Traditionally, this light is used to in order to follow the prohibition that no candle in the Menorah should be used for anything except meditating on the Hanukkah miracle. Therefore, the shamash allows for extra light outside of the Menorah. These lights are traditionally lit at nightfall and burn for half hour, except on Fridays, when they are lit before sunset in order to avoid lighting them on the Shabbat.
When the candles are lit, there are three traditional blessings that are recited. All three are recited on the first night and the first two recited the following nights. In some traditions, children are given presents after the lighting, though in others the children are encouraged to give to charities instead. Certain prayers are added to the daily blessings and the blessing after meals. The Hallel, or praise, found in Psalms 113-118, are sung during the morning service during this time as well.
Food also plays an important part in Hanukkah traditions. Customarily, foods fried in oil, preferably olive oil, are eaten in order to celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. Potato pancakes, known as latkes, are traditional among some families, while other families normally eat jam filled pastries, and cheese pancakes. In Israel, latkes aren’t as popular due to economic factors and have been replaced by jam filled pastries. Traditionally the jam is strawberry, but bakeries around Israel are popularizing other flavors of jams.
Another popular tradition is the game of dreidel. A four sided top, each side has a Hebrew letter on it, Nun, Gimel, Hey, Shin, standing for the statement “a great miracle happened there”. Another tradition says that the letters represent the four exiles that the Hebrews went through in Babylonia, Prussia, Greece, and Rome. The game of dreidel is enjoyed by the entire family and starts with each member getting ten to fifteen tokens (either coins or food) and placing one in the pot. The plays then spin the dreidel, the letter it falls on depends on if the player gives up a token or takes one. There are two versions of the game, in the first one Nun means nothing happens, Gimel means the player takes the pot, Hey means the player takes half the port, and Shin means they put a token in the pot. In the other version of the game, Nun means the player takes one from the pot, Gimel means the player puts one in the pot, Hey means the player takes half the pot, and Shin means nothing happens.