This year Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights as it is sometimes called, begins on December 8th and ends on the 16th. Although a lot of people speak of it as the “Jewish version of Christmas,” it is nothing of the sort.
Hanukkah celebrates a miracle that occurred during a war in the second century B.C. The Jews led the Maccabean Revolt to reclaim a Jewish temple that the Greeks had taken over.
When the soldiers finally gained control of the temple, they had a small oil jug with just a smidge of oil in it. They put it in the menorah and lit it. It should have burned for just a short time but it lasted for eight nights.
The only actual religious observation of Hanukkah is the lighting of the menorah each of the eight nights. While the family is gathered together, there are prayers and blessings that are recited.
Modern day Hanukkah celebrations usually include the giving of gifts. Children are given one gift on each night. Some surmise that since Hanukkah and Christmas happen very close together the giving of gifts is a way of keeping the children from feeling left out when their friends are boasting of the various gifts they got. In my case, it worked in opposites.
I was good friends with a Jewish boy when I was in kindergarten or first grade – I can’t even remember his name now. Anyway, when he told me that he got presents every night for eight nights I was super jealous. I went home and asked my parents to become Jewish immediately because Hanukkah was starting in a couple of days.
One of the traditional toys is a dreidle. It is sort of like a top with Jewish letters on it. The letters stand for the phrase “A Great Miracle Happened There.” Another traditional gift is gelt, which means money. The money may be actual money or the gold foiled chocolate coins you see in the stores around the holiday season.
Like most celebrations, there are traditional foods that go along with it. Many of these foods are fried or use oil in some way, another way of commemorating the meaning of the holiday. Of course, each family is different but traditional foods are –
- Latkes – potato pancakes
- Sufganiyot – filled doughnuts
- Applesauce – to put on the latkes of course
Other than that you are on your own – pretty much anything goes except pork. Bon Apetit has a variety of Hanukkah menus if you are interested.
Decorating is a modern tradition. Blue and white are traditionally the colors of the holiday, so you may see blue and white lights outside of houses, along with other items that the family likes and wants to use. Popular motifs for decorating are menorahs, the Star of David, dreidles, and such.
I know a family that got around the whole thing by putting up a Hanukkah Bush the day before Hanukkah and leaving it up until after Christmas. They were able to celebrate the spiritual side of the Jewish holiday and enjoy the secular side of Christmas.
Because let’s face it, the birth of Christ has nothing to do with evergreen trees and Santa Claus. No matter what kind of spin you put on it, you are only adding extra stuff. I know we have always tried to separate the secular from the spiritual during Christmas.
Do you celebrate Hanukkah?