Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that has been celebrated for more than 2000 years. The holiday is observed every December over an eight day period. The traditions associated with Hanukkah have carried through the generations with minor changes. Hanukkah is often referred to as the Festival of Lights.
The Jewish people created the special day after they successfully recaptured Jerusalem from the Syrian king who had run them out of their homes. Antiochus IV attempted to destroy Judaism by taking over the holy city of Jerusalem and its temples. In an act of complete disrespect, he filled the temples with Syrian idols. The king’s army desecrated the temple and destroyed all the vials of oil that were used to fill the lamps in the temple.
In 165 BC, after the reclamation of the city, the temple was cleansed and all the blasphemous idols were removed. In a rededication ceremony, the oil lamps were relit with just enough pure olive oil to last one day. By some miracle, the oil stretched out over an eight day period. This gave the people just enough time to prepare the oil needed to keep the eternal flame in the temple burning. The yearly celebration was named Hanukkah, which means “to dedicate” in Hebrew.
Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev. Kislev is the third month of the civil year and the ninth month according to the Hebrew ecclesiastical calendar. The celebratory period occurs in November or December of each year according to the commonly used worldwide Gregorian calendar.
One of the most important traditions associated with Hanukkah is the lighting of the candles on a menorah. One candle is lit on each of the eight days of Hanukkah. Every menorah has nine candle holders. The ninth candle is typically in the center of the menorah and is either slightly higher or lower than the others. It is acceptable for the ninth candle to be off to the side as well. The ninth candle is commonly called the shamash, which translates into the service candle.
The shamash is the only candle that can be used to light the other candles on the menorah. The shamash is lit before the first candle and remains lit along with the number of candles that correlates with the number of days into the celebration. The candles are traditionally lit at sundown and remain burning throughout the evening. The tradition requirement calls for the candles to remain burning for at least thirty minutes after sunset.
Each family may have a different Hanukkah tradition when it comes to the lighting of the menorah. Some may have a menorah for each family member, others only light one for the whole family. The menorah is placed in a window or in an area the whole family will see.
The menorah lighting ceremony is often accompanied with songs and prayers cited by members of the family. Verses from Psalms are commonly quoted before and after the lighting ceremony. Songs like “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” and “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” are typically sung as part of the celebration.
Along with the music, food that has been deep fried or baked in olive oil is served. Potato pancakes, jelly filled doughnuts, pretzels and a variety of cheeses. Foods cooked in olive oil represent the first lighting of the lamps during the original rededication ceremony. Hanukkah celebrations are filled with traditional Jewish foods.
Jewish people do not celebrate the traditional Christian holiday known as Christmas. However, throughout the eight days of Hanukkah, families exchange gifts, much like a typical Christmas celebration. Another common tradition practiced during Hanukkah, is giving money to children. Some families choose to stick with the traditional amount of just a few coins, but grandparents often choose to give children larger sums.
Traditional games like dreidel are played by the whole family after the menorah has been lit. A dreidel is a four sided spinning top that is inscribed with Hebrew letters. Depending on the side the top lands on, a player may win or lose pieces of their stash. Stashes are usually made up of coins, nuts, raisins or any other item the family chooses.
Hanukkah traditions have been evolving overtime and are more worldly than they once were. Evidence of the evolving traditions can be seen in the smaller doughnuts that are considered to be healthier and have less calories. Another sign of the evolving holiday is the gift giving ceremony that is commonly carried out throughout each of the eight days of Hanukkah versus a singular day of gelt or money given to children.