What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah, also known as Chanukah, is the Jewish Festival Of Lights. The date is celebrated changes each year, depending on the Western calendar, but it usually falls in November or December. The celebration dates back to two centuries before Christianity began, and lasts for eight days. The word ‘Hanukkah’ means dedication, and honours one of the greatest miracles in Jewish history.

After the Thanksgiving parades end and before the Christmas music starts blasting, it’s time to celebrate Hanukkah. The Jewish Festival of Lights begins on December 22 and ends on December 30 this year. So once you’ve got your blue, white, and silver decorations and menorah candles picked out, read up on the story of Hanukkah and get ready to chow down on latkes.

Hanukkah is also a time for giving and receiving presents and gifts are often given on each night. Lots of games are played during the time of Hanukkah. The most popular is ‘dreidel’ (Yiddish) or ‘sivivon’ (Hebrew). It’s a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side. The four letters are the first letter of the phrase ‘Nes Gadol Hayah Sham’ which means ‘A great miracle happened there’ (in Israel, ‘there’ is changed to ‘here’ so it’s ‘Nes Gadol Hayah Po’). Each player put a coin, nut or chocolate coin in a pot and the top is spun. If the letter is ‘nun’ (נ) come up nothing happens, if it’s ‘gimel’ (ג) the player wins the pot, if it’s ‘hay’ (ה), you win half the pot and if it’s ‘shin’ (for ‘there’ ש) or ‘pe’ (for ‘here’ פ) you have to put another item into the pot and the next person has a spin!

History of Hanukkah

The events that inspired the Hanukkah holiday took place during a particularly turbulent phase of Jewish history. Around 200 B.C., Judea—also known as the Land of Israel—came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria, who allowed the Jews who lived there to continue practising their religion. His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, proved less benevolent: Ancient sources recount that he outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. In 168 B.C., his soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.

Led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons, a large-scale rebellion broke out against Antiochus and the Seleucid monarchy. When Matthathias died in 166 B.C., his son Judah, known as Judah Maccabee (“the Hammer”), took the helm; within two years the Jews had successfully driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, relying largely on guerilla warfare tactics. Judah called on his followers to cleanse the Second Temple, rebuild its altar and light its menorah—the gold candelabrum whose seven branches represented knowledge and creation and were meant to be kept burning every night.

Other Interpretations of the Hanukkah Story

Some modern historians offer a radically different interpretation of the Hanukkah tale. In their view, Jerusalem under Antiochus IV had erupted into civil war between two camps of Jews: those who had assimilated into the dominant culture that surrounded them, adopting Greek and Syrian customs; and those who were determined to impose Jewish laws and traditions, even if by force. The traditionalists won out in the end, with the Hasmonean dynasty—led by Judah Maccabee’s brother and his descendants—wresting control of the Land of Israel from the Seleucids and maintaining an independent Jewish kingdom for more than a century.

Jewish scholars have also suggested that the first Hanukkah may have been a belated celebration of Sukkot, which the Jews had not had the chance to observe during the Maccabean Revolt. One of the Jewish religion’s most important holidays, Sukkot consists of seven days of feasting, prayer and festivities.

How is it celebrated?

Hanukkah is a fun time for children, as they will receive gifts and Hanukkah money.

Some families give each other a small present on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.

Traditionally, there is a special game that children and adults play together. It involves a spinning top called a dreidel, which is a cube-shaped dice with a Hebrew letter on each of the four sides.

To begin the game, each player has 10-20 objects, which are often raisins or sweets. Each person puts one object in the middle and takes a turn at spinning the dreidel.

The letter that the dreidel shows when it has finished spinning determines whether they win or lose.

The holiday is also celebrated by lighting an eight-branched candlestick called a Hanukiah.

At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah lighting. The menorah holds nine flames, one of which is the shamash (“attendant”), which is used for kindling the other eight lights. On the first night, we light just one flame. On the second night, an additional flame is lit. By the eighth night of Chanukah, all eight lights are kindled.

Special blessings are recited, often to a traditional melody, before the menorah is lit, and traditional songs are sung afterwards.

A menorah is lit in every household (or even by each individual within the household) and placed in a doorway or window. The menorah is also lit in synagogues and other public places. In recent years, thousands of jumbo menorahs have cropped up in front of city halls and legislative buildings, and in malls and parks all over the world.

We recite the special Hallel prayer daily, and add V’Al HaNissim in our daily prayers and the Grace After Meals, to offer praise and thanksgiving to G‑d for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few … the wicked into the hands of the righteous.”

The Hanukkah celebration revolves around the kindling of a nine-branched menorah, known in Hebrew as the hanukiah. On each of the holiday’s eight nights, another candle is added to the menorah after sundown; the ninth candle called the shamash (“helper”), is used to light the others. Jews typically recite blessings during this ritual and display the menorah prominently in a window as a reminder to others of the miracle that inspired the holiday.

In another allusion to the Hanukkah miracle, traditional Hanukkah foods are fried in oil. Potato pancakes (known as latkes) and jam-filled doughnuts (sufganiyot) are particularly popular in many Jewish households. Other Hanukkah customs include playing with four-sided spinning tops called dreidels and exchanging gifts. In recent decades, particularly in North America, Hanukkah has exploded into a major commercial phenomenon, largely because it falls near or overlaps with Christmas. From a religious perspective, however, it remains a relatively minor holiday that places no restrictions on working, attending school or other activities.

Much of the activity of Hanukkah takes place at home. Central to the holiday is the lighting of the hanukkiah or menorah, an eight-branched candelabrum to which one candle is added on each night of the holiday until it is ablaze with light on the eighth night. In commemoration of the legendary cruse of oil, it is traditional to eat foods fried in oil. The most familiar Hanukkah foods are the European (Ashkenazi) potato pancakes, or latkes, and the Israeli favourite, jelly doughnuts, or sufganiyot. The tradition developed in Europe to give small amounts of money as well as nuts and raisins to children at this time. Under the influence of Christmas, which takes place around the same time of year, Hanukkah has evolved into the central gift-giving holiday in the Jewish calendar in the Western world.

What are the gift ideas for each day of Hanukkah?

If you’re trying to come up with fun — yet affordable — Hanukkah gifts for your children, there are many options to choose from. The following eight gift ideas are sure to bring a smile to your children’s faces, without making a dent in your budget:

  • Day One — Traditional Gifts: Keep Hanukkah traditions alive by giving your children a dreidel, gelt — chocolate coins are also perfectly acceptable — or a menorah. Create lasting family memories by teaching your children the dreidel game and playing it together.
  • Day Two — Puzzles and Games: Take inventory of your children’s puzzles and games and see what childhood classics they’re missing. Purchase old favourites like Candy Land, Monopoly and Clue and give them to your kids to play together as a family. Invest in a large puzzle that everyone can work on as a group throughout the evening.
  • Day Three — Books: Choose a few books for each child based on their reading levels and interests. Not only does reading serve as a great way to improve their vocabulary, but it also provides hours of entertainment. Local libraries make a great go-to for purchasing books cheaply, as many have small book stores where donated books find new homes.
  • Day Four — Gift for the Family: Teach your children the joy of sharing by purchasing a gift for the entire family. You can make this surprise as inexpensive or extravagant as you want, but keep the focus on spending family time together. For example, a few budget-friendly ideas include letting your kids choose a movie to see together or treating them to a pizza dinner. Check sites like Groupon and Living Social for discounts on restaurants, local activities and getaway deals.
  • Day Five — Pajamas: Your children could probably use new pyjamas, so turn this practical item into a fun gift by choosing a silly pair or one donning their favourite characters. Look for high-quality, low-priced pyjamas at discount retailers.
  • Day Six — Charitable Giving: Teach your children the joy of giving by dedicating one night to charity. Set aside as much money as you feel comfortable giving and decide as a family which charity or charities you’ll donate the funds to. Alternatively, you can also purchase gifts for a children’s charity.
  • Day Seven — Favorite Items: Present each of your children with a gift bag filled with some of their favourite things. These don’t have to be expensive items. In fact, you can gather them throughout the year when you find them on sale. Ideas include candy, costume jewellery, cosmetic items, art supplies, snack food and other practical items your children enjoy.
  • Day Eight — Handmade Gifts: Gifts don’t have to be store-bought, so present your child with a lovely DIY item. If you have more than one child, this is a great opportunity to have them make gifts for one another. Need ideas? Head to Pinterest for inspiration.

What do Jewish people eat at Hanukkah?

According to Jewish law, Hanukkah is one of the less important Jewish holidays. However, Hanukkah has become much more popular in modern practice because of its proximity to Christmas. The traditional foods consumed during the Hanukkah holiday are symbolic of the events being celebrated. Most of these traditional foods are fried in oil, symbolic of the oil that lasted eight days. Others contain cheese to celebrate Judith’s victory.

Three popular foods eaten on the Jewish holidays include loukoumades, pancakes, and latkes. Loukoumades are deep-fried puffs dipped in honey or sugar to represent the cakes the Maccabees ate, along with sufganiyot and zelebi. Pancakes are a traditional dish, serving as a reminder of the food hurriedly prepared for the Maccabees as they went into battle, along with the oil they are fried in as a reminder of the miraculous oil. Latkes were originally symbolic of the cheesecakes served by the widow Judith and later evolved to the potato/vegetable fried most known today. Many kinds of cheese and dairy dishes are consumed in memory of brave Judith.

Hanukkah is the time for traditional and celebratory food, with most dishes being deep-fried in oil to represent the miraculous eight-day burning of the menorah. Latkes, a kind of potato fritter resembling pancakes, can be topped with sweet and savoury toppings, ranging from cherries and apples to potatoes and carrots. A sufganiyah is a deep-fried jam or custard filled doughnut topped with powdered sugar, traditionally eaten in Israel but consumed around the world during Hanukkah due to the fact they are cooked in oil.

Hanukkah is a great time for eating delicious food.

Some dishes have special meaning, such as latkes (which are a kind of potato fritter), pancakes and doughnuts.

This is because they are fried in oil, and so, by preparing and eating this food, Jewish people remember the miracle of the oil lasting eight days in the temple.

Why Is Chocolate Hanukkah Gelt Given on Hanukkah?

Since the 17th century, giving money (gelt) on Hanukkah has been a tradition. It began with parents giving gelt to teachers and eventually expanded to families giving gelt to their children as gifts or rewards for Torah study. Over time, chocolate manufacturers used the concept to make chocolate gelt wrapped in gold or silver foil in small pouches that look like money bags. This act of gratitude is also recognized as a commemoration and celebration of the miracle of the oil.

Other than these customary Hanukkah foods, it’s typical to include a range of other sides, like challah, large salads, Brussels sprouts, or seasonal recipes, such as fried okra and late-harvest zucchini. These dishes represent the long history of Jewish families and friends coming together and celebrating the holiday season through food. Incorporate this blend of traditional and modern flavours into your favourite Jewish recipes to provide guests with a memorable Hanukkah meal.

The Hanukkah “Miracle”

According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most central texts, Judah Maccabee and the other Jews who took part in the rededication of the Second Temple witnessed what they believed to be a miracle. Even though there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights, leaving them time to find a fresh supply. This extraordinary event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival. (The first Book of the Maccabees tells another version of the story, describing an eight-day celebration that followed the rededication but making no reference to the miracle of the oil.)

Like Passover, Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates the liberation from oppression. It also provides a strong argument in favour of freedom of worship and religion. In spite of the human action that is commemorated, never far from the surface is the theology that the liberation was possible only thanks to the miraculous support of the Divine.

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