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A Brief Guide to the History and Traditions of Hanukkah

Hanukkah is an annual eight-day Jewish holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights or Feast of Dedication, which takes place on the 25th of Kislev in the Jewish calendar (usually between late November and late December on the Gregorian calendar). The holiday celebrates the survival of the Jewish people against Syrian-Greek oppressors and, in particular, the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. Though a minor festival, in the past century or so its proximity to Christmas has encouraged more elaborate celebrations featuring not just the traditional menorah lighting but gift-giving, dreidel-spinning, and plenty of delicious fried foods.

1. Why Jewish People Celebrate Hanukkah

Nine branched menorah isolated on blue background
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Hanukkah partly commemorates a military victory, but it’s about much more than that. The story starts more than 2000 ago, around 200 B.C., when the Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus III, took over ancient Judea. (The Seleucids were an ancient empire formed by one of Alexander the Great’s generals after the great conqueror died; at its height, the empire stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the border of India.)

Antiochus III allowed the Jews to live in relative peace and to continue practicing their religion. His son, however, eventually had other plans. Antiochus IV Epiphanes (also known as Antiochus the Mad) outlawed Judaism and ordered Jews to worship Greek deities instead. Things came to a head in 168 B.C., when his soldiers massacred thousands of Jews and desecrated the Second Temple by raising an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs inside.

That’s where the Maccabees come in. These Jewish guerrilla fighters, helmed by the priest Mattathias and his five sons, led a rebellion against Antiochus and the Seleucids. Mattathias died in 166 B.C., but his son Judah Maccabee took up the mantle, and in about two years their forces had banished the Seleucids.

The story of what happened next is something that every Jewish child learns in Hebrew school. Judah called his followers together to cleanse and re-dedicate the Second Temple, including rebuilding and relighting the menorah, the seven-branched gold candelabrum that has long been an important Jewish symbol. According to the Talmud, a miracle then occurred: Though there was only enough clean olive oil to keep the menorah burning for one night, the flames burned for eight nights, giving the Jews enough time to source a new supply of oil. In celebration, Jewish rabbis declared a yearly eight-night festival commemorating the victory, and, more generally, Jewish survival in the face of continued threats of assimilation and death.

This, at least, is the version most Jews learn in school. Historians also tell a more complicated story that includes a power struggle between rival factions of Jews competing for the priesthood, control of Jerusalem, and dueling forms of Judaism — a more Hellenistic (Greek-influenced) form versus traditional religious Judaism, the latter represented by the Maccabees. Regardless of the details of the story, the rededication of the Second Temple is paramount to the meaning behind the holiday.

2. The Reason for Lighting the Menorah on Hanukkah

A menorah lit on a wooden dinner table
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The most important part of celebrating Hanukkah is lighting the Hanukkah menorah, also called a hanukiah, at sunset on each night of the holiday. Unlike a regular menorah, which only has seven branches, a hanukiah has holders for nine candles — one for each night of the festival, as well as a ninth candle called a shammash (“server” or “helper”) that is used to light the others. On the first night, the shammash lights only one other candle, then two on the second night, three on the third, and so on until the eighth night. A special blessing is recited after the candles are lit.

The hanukiah is then traditionally placed in the window, so that others can see the reminder of the miracle. (Like the original menorah in the Second Temple, hanukiyot — the plural of hanukkiah — originally used olive oil, but the candles are a modern interpretation.)

3. Why Oily Foods Are Key on Hanukkah

Rows of sufganiyot on a tray
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Holiday food doesn’t necessarily need a reason other than being delicious, but in the case of traditional Hanukkah treats the link to the holiday’s story is clear: Celebrants eat oily, fried foods during the Festival of Lights because of the story about the miracle of the oil. The most popular items in a Hanukkah feast are latkes (made of grated potatoes) and jam-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot. Both are fried in oil, and the latter are especially popular in Israel.

Fun fact: latkes were originally made out of cheese and eaten in honor of Judith, a Jewish heroine of the 6th century B.C. (Potatoes didn’t arrive in Europe until the 16th century, after all.) According to one version of her story, after charming the invading Assyrian general Holofernes, Judith fed him salty cheese to encourage his thirst for wine. Once he was drunk, she cut off his head, helping to deliver a victory for her people. Although she lived centuries before the Maccabees, over the years Judith’s story has become conflated with Hanukkah. In the oral Jewish tradition, she is often said to be Judah Maccabee’s aunt or niece.

Gelt, by the way — those waxy-tasting, foil-covered chocolate coins — is a far more recent tradition that only began in 20th century America. It may be inspired by similar candy coins handed out to honor St. Nicholas, or it may go back to Eastern European traditions around holiday tipping. Children also receive non-edible coins or other money as presents (“gelt” is Yiddish for money), and both the chocolate and financial varieties can be used while playing dreidel.

4. Why Gifts Are Given on Hanukkah

Gift box wrapped with white bow and ribbon against a blue background
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Hanukkah only became a big deal for kids in the 19th century, as Jewish rabbis and families sought to keep children engaged in Jewish traditions amid the increasing commercialization of Christmas in America. Toward the end of the 19th century, rabbis introduced synagogue Hanukkah celebrations for children, featuring singing, treats, and the lighting of the menorah. Although gift-giving has nothing to do with the Hanukkah story, it became part of the celebration in 20th century America, as new immigrants from Europe sought to demonstrate their upward mobility. However, many families choose to do small gifts on each night, rather than the more lavish presents associated with Christmas. And unlike Christian celebrations, presents are generally only given to children, not among family members.

5. Why Families Play Dreidel on Hanukkah

Person holding a blue dreidel up on a wooden surface
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After the lighting of the candles and the eating of the latkes comes the playing of a traditional Hanukkah game. Dreidels are four-sided spinning tops, each side marked with a different Hebrew letter: nun, gimel, hei, and shin. The letters form the initials of the phrase “Nes gadol haya sham,” meaning “a great miracle happened there.” (In Israel, the final letter on the dreidel is different, to reflect that the more appropriate phrase is “a great miracle happened here.”)

The game itself has rules that vary across households, but it generally involves coins, sweets, or some other small token or treat. Everyone starts out with the same amount, and each person puts one item into a communal “pot” at the center. Players then take turns spinning the dreidel, and get or give various amounts of the tokens depending on which letter the top lands on. When one person wins all the game pieces, the round is over.

So why is the game played on Hanukkah? The classic story is that after the Seleucids outlawed Jewish practices, Jewish children studying the Torah would keep tops at the ready so that if soldiers burst in, they could quickly put aside their texts to pretend they were just playing a game. Realistically, though, the pastime likely dates to the 16th century, to a similar English and Irish game played during Christmastime called totum or teetotum, which came to eastern European Jews via Germany.

6. It Doesn’t Really Matter How You Spell It

A bowl of Hanukkah cookies
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The Associated Press prefers the spelling “Hanukkah,” but you may also see the holiday spelled “Chanukah,” “Hanukah,” or other variations. All are attempts to transliterate the Hebrew word ḥanukkāh, which means “dedication” or “consecration.” A certain amount of spelling variation is acceptable (Merriam-Webster accepts all three spellings at the start of this paragraph), but know that in English the “Ha” sound at the beginning of the word should be pronounced like the “Ha” at the start of “Häagen-Dazs.” If you pronounce the “Ch” in “Channukah” like the start of “chapstick,” your Jewish friends may be forced to stifle a few giggles.

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