Oh yes, Hanukkah. Light Festival. “Jewish Christmas.” The holiday that Adam Sandler wrote a song about.
Come Jewish People, however, Hanukkah isn’t really all that is religious about a holiday – although because of its close proximity to Christmas, it is often considered the most important Jewish holiday. It cannot. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, for example, is more religiously observed, although Hanukkah is certainly culturally significant.
As a child, Hanukkah meant that I could receive the same gifts as my predominantly Christian classmates and not feel left out. It also means politely nodding (and still does) when someone says “Merry Christmas” in mid to late December and tries to remember to say it again.
This year my family can finally celebrate the holiday normally again after spending last year lighting candles on Zoom.
So if Hanukkah isn’t all that religious, what’s all the fuss about?
Disclaimer: Like any minority, I am only one of many members and my experience does not reflect the experience of all Jews.
In case you missed:Celebrating Hanukkah? Here’s everything you need for a festive break
What exactly is Hanukkah and when was it?
Known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century BC. The event occurred when the Jews rebelled against the Greco-Syrian rulers during the Maccabean Revolt and drove them out of Jerusalem, according to History channel.
To mark their victory, the Jews wanted to reclaim the temple and light its menorah, but found only enough extra virgin olive oil for a day, according to Chabad.org. That one-day supply lasted eight days and was considered a miracle in the Jewish faith.
Every year, Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev, a month in the Hebrew calendar. It lasted eight nights (yes, because of the oil), and this year is from November 28 to December 6.
You may not have heard of this Jewish holiday:What is Shavuot? Everything there is to know about this Jewish holiday weekend.
Hold. Does oil really last 8 days?
No, it’s possible. I was sure that was true until I was in the seventh grade of a Hebrew school when someone told me it was not.
The eight-day oil story is about ancient rabbis, who apparently made up the story while chatting about holiday candle lighting, reports washington articles. Some firmly believe in the oil story, although others tend to focus on message / lesson teaching vacation.
Also, is it Hanukkah or Chanukah?
The difference arises because the name of the holiday is derived from Hebrew, which does not use the Latin alphabet. According to Merriam-Webster, some sounds in Hebrew don’t exactly match Latin letters, creating multiple spellings.
Today, the most common spelling is Hanukkah, but don’t be surprised if you also see Chanukah or Hanukah, according to the two dictionaries.
Check out this USA TODAY Life feature for learn more about Hanukkah’s writing style.
What happens in Hanukkah?
To mark the holiday, Jews light a candle each evening on a nine-branched menorah. The ninth candle – shamash, (“helper” or “servant”) – is used to light the remaining eight candles.
Illuminated menorahs are prominently displayed, usually in windows. Playing with shirts called dreidels and exchanging gifts are other Hanukkah traditions to celebrate the holiday. Don’t forget about gelts, the chocolate coins that adults give to children during Hanukkah (a symbol of the amount Jewish parents would give their children in lieu of gifts; “gelt” has means money in Yiddish).
Larger family gatherings during the pandemic may yet to take place this year – especially if everyone is unvaccinated – meaning it will be up to individual households to figure out how to communicate direct gifts and faithful rotation. I know I’m hoping for the mail and in this season.
Wait, Hanukkah isn’t as big of a deal as Christmas?
No, at least not in the traditional religious sense. In fact, if you Google “Hanukkah is no big deal” you will find a lot of articles that can tell you many things.
That said, it still makes sense for other reasons. When I asked other Jews what made Hanukkah so special on Twitter feed in 2019, my followers were talking about “latkes”, potato cakes commonly consumed around the holidays. (People eat donuts filled with jelly, or sufganiyot, do you understand? Fried foods.)
Like other Jewish holidays, haunting Hebrew hymns are part of the occasion. “Rugrats”, Nickelodeon cartoon, aired Hanukkah themed episodes in 1996 is considered educational, lovely and entertaining.
And who can forget the gifts? Growing up, it was fun to look forward to a different gift each night – some less expensive ones like pajamas and art supplies. The best year (and probably the worst, for the adults in my family, anyway) was when my grandparents bought each of their grandchildren a dozen or so Razor scooters. As I got older, the tradition turned into a great gift for the period, although we still light the candles.
More on Jewish high holidays:This is America: I return to the synagogue for the Great Jewish Feast. Feeling like coming home.
OK, but why is everyone really making a fuss about Hanukkah?
You can special thanks (or no, thanks) American Jews for that. As Vox reports, it is still debated whether it was a direct response to Christmas or an attempt to encourage young people to spend time in the synagogue. The Atlantic notes that the story of Hanukkah isn’t even in the Torah, the Jewish Bible. For comparison: This is the same bible that includes my portion of the Torah, Bamidbar, which literally refers to the counting of tribes around a sacred tabernacle.
Like most Jewish teachings, “it emphasizes one of the most important themes in Jewish history: the struggle to practice Judaism as powerful forces sought to quell it.” “, Lauren Markoe wrote about Religious News Service. Also: “It serves a specific purpose: an opportunity to negotiate twin, competitive pressures of tension, and ethnic assimilation,” writes Emma Green in The Atlantic (i.e. we are the Maccabees, hear us roar).
Anti-Semitism unfortunately stayed more popular. I’m not a super religious person, but after getting to know myself about the holiday while researching this article, I will proudly light the candles to remind myself of the most important part of the holiday. for me: fighting for the right to exist.
Hopefully by 2022 it will involve my family and I celebrating (and fighting) together more often.
Contributors: Ryan W. Miller and David Jackson, USA TODAY