Ah, yes, Hanukkah. Festival of Lights. The Jewish Christmas. The holiday that Adam Sandler wrote a song about.
To Jewish people, however, Hanukkah isn’t actually all that religious of a holiday –though because of its proximity to Christmas, it’s often assumed the most important Jewish holiday. It’s not. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, for example, are more religiously observed, though Hanukkah certainly holds cultural significance.
As a child, Hanukkah meant I could get presents just like my predominantly-Christian classmates and not feel left out. This meant that I had to nod politely when someone said “Merry Christmas”, and try to recall how to do it again.
This year my family can finally celebrate the holiday normally again after spending last year lighting candles on Zoom.
If Hanukkah doesn’t really have any religious significance, then what is all the fuss?
Disclaimer: I’m just one member of a minority. My experiences are not representative of the entire Jewish community.
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How do you define Hanukkah?
Known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C. The event occurred when Jews rose up against Greek-Syrian rulers in the Maccabean Revolt and drove them out of Jerusalem, according to the History Channel.
To mark their victory, Jews wanted to reclaim the temple and light its menorah, but only found enough pure olive oil for one day, according to Chabad.org. The miracle that was the Jewish faith considers the one-day oil supply to last eight days.
Every year, Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, a month in the Hebrew calendar. It lasts eight nights (yes, because of the oil), and this year it’s from Nov. 28 through Dec. 6.
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Do not panic. Are you serious? Did it last for 8 days?
No. Well, maybe. I was sure it was true until my seventh grade Hebrew school class when someone told me it wasn’t.
The story of the oil lasting eight days goes back to ancient rabbis, who seemed to have made up the story while chatting about lighting candles during the holiday, reports The Washington Post. Some staunchly believe the oil story, though others are more inclined to focus on the messages/lessons the holiday teaches.
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Also, is it Hanukkah or Chanukah?
Both of these are true. In fact, there are many variations of how to spell the holiday’s name in English, according to the Oxford Dictionaries and Merriam-Webster.
These differences are due to the fact that the holiday’s names come from Hebrew which does not use Latin alphabet. Merriam-Webster states that Hebrew sounds may not be exact match for Latin letters. These differences can lead to multiple spellings.
Today, the most common spelling is Hanukkah, but don’t be surprised if you also see Chanukah or Hanukah, according to the two dictionaries.
Check out this USA TODAY Life feature for a deeper dive on the spellings of Hanukkah.
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Hanukkah: What’s the deal?
Jews light one candle per evening to mark the occasion on their nine-branched menorah. The ninth candle – the shamash, (“helper” or “attendant”) – is used to light the other eight.
The lit menorahs are displayed prominently, often in windows. Playing with tops called dreidels and exchanging gifts are other Hanukkah traditions to celebrate the holiday. Don’t forget about gelt, chocolate coins adults give to children during Hanukkah (a symbol of the money that Jewish parents would give their children in lieu of gifts; “gelt” means money in Yiddish).
Larger family gatherings during the pandemic may still not be happening this year – especially if people are unvaccinated – meaning it will be up to individual households to figure out in-person gift exchanges and dreidel spinning. Gelt will be sent to me, I am sure. In person, this season.
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Hanukkah may not be as important as Christmas, but it is still worth mentioning.
It’s not, or at least in the religious tradition. You can actually Google Hanukkah not big deal to find many articles.
It is still significant for others, however. My fellow Jews were able to tell me what made Hanukkah so special. Twitter feed in 2019, my followers talked about “latkes,” the potato pancakes typically consumed on the holiday. (People eat doughnuts filled with jelly, or sufganiyot, too. Get it? Fried food.
Like other Jewish holidays, haunting Hebrew hymns are part of the occasion. “Rugrats,” the Nickelodeon cartoon, aired a Hanukkah-themed episode in 1996 that holds up as educational, endearing and entertaining.
The presents are a must-have. Growing up it was fun to look forward to a different gift every night – some less expensive like pajamas and art supplies. For my extended family of adults, the worst (but not the most memorable) year was when my grandparents gave each of our twelve grandchildren Razor scooters. While the gift became one larger present for each period as I grew older, we continue to light the candles.
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Okay, so why is everyone making such a big deal about Hanukkah.
You can thank (or not thank) American Jews for that. Vox reports that it isn’t clear if this was an attempt to motivate young people to attend synagogue. The Atlantic points out that Hanukkah’s story is not in the Torah (the Jewish Bible). Comparatively, this is the exact same Bible that contained my Torah portion, Bamidbar. This was literally about counting tribes in a sacred tabernacle.
Like most Jewish teachings, “it underscores one of the most significant themes in Jewish history: the struggle to practice Judaism when powerful forces seek to extinguish it,” writes Lauren Markoe of the Religion News Service. Emma Green, The Atlantic writes that “It serves an important purpose”: It allows us to deal with the dual pressures of assimilation and ethnic tension. “We are Maccabees. Let us roar.”
Anti-Semitism has unfortunately remained more than prevalent. I’m not a super religious person, but after re-educating myself about the holiday while researching this article, I will be proud to light the candles to remind myself about the most important part of the holiday to me: fighting for the right to exist.
My family and I will hopefully be celebrating together (and fighting!) more in 2022.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of previous years’ Hanukkah stories.
Contributing: Ryan W. Miller and David Jackson, USA TODAY
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