Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, celebrates the victory of good over evil. The eight-day observance is a festive event with many fun traditions. Though the date of the annual holiday varies, it always falls sometime between late November and December. In 2023, Hanukkah will be marked from sundown on December 7th to sundown on December 15th.
The festival's origin dates back over 2,000 years to when Antiochus IV Epiphanes ruled the Land of Israel. The Greek king outlawed Judaism and ordered the Jewish people to worship Greek deities instead. He also installed an altar to worship Zeus and sacrificed pigs (considered impure or non-kosher by Jews) inside Jerusalem's Second Temple.
In 165 BC, after three years of fighting their Greek rulers, the Jewish people managed to reclaim the holy site. Inside the temple, they found a small quantity of kosher olive oil. It was enough to light the menorah for a single day. But to their surprise, the lamp remained lit for eight days. This gave the residents enough time to make a batch of pure oil. Hanukkah, which means "dedication" in Hebrew, was born soon after to commemorate the miracle oil.
Lighting the Hanukkiah
Lighting the Hanukkah menorah or Hanukkiah — a candelabrum with nine branches — is the festival's most important tradition. On the first night, two candles are lit — one for the first night of Hanukkah and the shamash ("helper") candle used to ignite it. An additional candle is added each night after that, until all nine are lit on the eighth day.
Many traditional Hanukkah foods are deep-fried to honor the miracle oil that led to the start of the holiday. Among the most popular are potato pancakes called latkes and jelly donuts called sufganiyot. Beef brisket, matzo ball soup, and challah — a braided egg bread — are also enjoyed during the festival.
After dinner, it's time for games! The most popular one involves a dreidel, a spinning top with Hebrew lettering engraved on each of its four sides. They are the acronym for the phrase "Nes Gadol Haya Sham" meaning "a great miracle happened here."
All players receive equal game pieces, such as dried fruit or chocolate coins. After donating a game piece to a shared pot, each player takes turns spinning the dreidel. Depending on which side it lands, the player either gets or receives game pieces from the pot.
The origin of the lively game is unclear. Some believe it dates back to the reign of King Antiochus IV. Prohibited from practicing Judaism in public, Jews would often read the Torah secretly. Upon seeing the Greek troops, they would hide the sacred texts and pretend to play with the dreidel. Others think the game has European origins.
Traditionally, children received gelt — a small amount of money or chocolate coins — during Hanukkah. But today, many families hand out more substantial gifts. Unlike Christmas, when the presents are given in a single day, Hanukkah gifting lasts eight days! It is no wonder the holiday is so popular with kids!
Resources: usatoday.com, Wikipedia.org, History.com