A Beginner’s Guide to Hanukkah

The traditional Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins early next week and will run from December 12th all the way through to the 20th. Also known as the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is an important part of religious Jewish culture and features many interesting traditions which must be observed throughout the 8-day holiday. Want to know what Hanukkah is all about? Read on for a beginner’s guide to the spectacular celebration!

Photo via Flickr

What does Hanukkah celebrate?

The origin of Hanukkah dates all the way back to 167 BC when a Syrian king made it illegal for Jews to observe their customs and traditions, forcing them instead to worship Greek gods. As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with most people, in particular a family of eight brothers known as the Maccabees. The Maccabees and other Jewish people fought back against this oppression and eventually won out, reclaiming their Temple. However, when they entered the Temple to light the Menorah, they discovered they only had enough oil for a single day. Miraculously, the oil burned for 8 days, giving the Jews enough time to find more oil for the Menorah!

How is Hanukkah celebrated?

The Menorah is a central part of Hanukkah celebrations, and every family that observes the holiday has at least one. A menorah is a nine-branched candelabrum and participants light one candle on each night of Hanukkah until the entire menorah is lit. Generally the candles are lit at sunset and there are blessings that must be recited over the menorah while this is going on. Sometimes children will have their own, smaller, menorahs to light too! The menorah (also chanukiah or hanukkiah) sits in the window in celebration of the holiday.

Photo via Flickr

Are there presents?

In the old days gifts used to be a minor part of Hanukkah celebrations – at least for religious Jews. However, due to its proximity to Christmas, gift-giving has become a bigger part of Hanukkah in recent years. Every family has their own customs when it comes to Hanukkah gifting; some like to observe the more traditional act of giving money gifts, or Gelt, to children as a way to encourage them in their studies. Other families enjoy giving gifts of toys, pajamas, or books to children on every one of the eight days of Hanukkah. Sometimes gifts are given every day, or divided up for specific days. It all depends on the personal customs of each family unit.

Is there food?

There is so much delicious food at Hanukkah celebrations that you’ll forget all about Christmas treats in no time at all! Parties during Hanukkah are filled with amazing fried food—all of which celebrates in some way the miracle of oil. One of the most popular Hanukkah dishes are latke; these are fried pancakes made out of grated or ground potatoes and sometimes flavoured with onion or garlic. Latke are served with applesauce or sour cream and are truly one of Hanukkah’s most tasty treats! It’s impossible to have just one, trust me on this.

Photo via Flickr

What’s the deal with the dreidel?

You’ve probably heard about this little top that is used for games during Hanukkah, but don’t really know what it signifies or how it’s played. While it’s not clear exactly how the tradition of playing with a dreidel during Hanukkah developed, some claim that it came about during the Syrian-Greek oppression of the Jews. Because observing Jewish traditions was illegal, Jews would study and teach the Torah (the Jewish holy book) in secret. According to legend, whenever a Greek soldier appeared, teachers would whisk their Torahs out of sight, pull out tops, and pretend to be playing with the children.  Today, playing with a dreidel during Hanukkah is a good way to remember the holiday’s roots, and it’s a lot of fun too! Players sit in a circle with a pile of tokens—these can be anything from actual coins to raisins or chocolates—and each player adds a single token to the central pot. One at a time they spin the dreidel and, depending on which letter is facing up when the dreidel falls, the players can win some or all of the pot, or has to add more tokens.

Do you celebrate Hanukkah? What are some of your family traditions and customs? Share a few with us in the comments section!