During a time of the year when everything seems to be focused on Christmas, it’s nice to have a holiday that brings Jews together to celebrate their strong heritage. Learn more about the history Hanukkah and what traditions are associated with this special holiday.
The History of Hanukkah
Many years ago (about 2200 to be exact), Jews were being severely oppressed by one Antiochus IV, a successor to Alexander the Great. Under his rule, the Jewish religion was abolished and the Temple was desecrated by the sacrifice of pigs on the altar – a very un-kosher act. Two groups rose in opposition to Antiochus, one nationalistic revolt lead by Mattias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Macabee (later known as known as Yehudah the Hammer and hero of the Jewish holiday) and a traditionalist group known as Chasidim (forerunners of the Pharisees). The revolt won, but when it came time to rededicate the temple, there was only enough oil left un-desecrated by the Greeks to light the menorah for one day, and it would take eight days to make more. But then a miracle happened! The little oil that that was left burned for eight days! After this magical event, a festival was declared and the new Jewish holiday was called Hanukkah.
Hanukkah is the most popular (although not the most religiously significant) Jewish holiday throughout North America. A big part of the celebration involves parents giving their children one small gift each night for a total of eight gifts. Although the tradition of gift-giving to children may be linked to Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas, Jews can rejoice that Christian children find an interest in the Jewish holidays upon catching wind of the eight days of gift-giving, especially when compared to the meager one to two days of Christmas gifts among gentiles.
The menorah is the most recognizable symbol of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. It’s used to celebrate the miraculous eight days of the burning of the oil in the Temple. The menorah is a candelabrum that holds nine candles – one for each miraculous day plus a shammus (servant) candle, which is offset, usually above the other eight. On all eight days of Hanukkah, a candle and the shammus are lit in successive order so that on the final night, all nine candles are illuminated. In many traditions, the menorah is placed where it can be seen outside of the home, reminding passersby of the miracle of the Jewish holiday.
The Hanukkah fun doesn’t stop with the menorah! The dreidel game is a very popular tradition, especially among children. This game involves the spinning of a top while children place bets with Hanukkah gelt (coins) or match sticks, wrapped chocolates, pogs or whatever children deem to be acceptable wagering materials on the Jewish holiday. Players take turns spinning the dreidel and doing whatever the inscription says on the side that lands face up. There are four possible outcomes in a Yiddish dreidel:
- Nun (nothing) – nothing happens, the next player spins
- Gimel (all) – the player takes the entire pot
- Hey (half) – the player takes half of the pot
- Shin (put in) – the player puts one marker in the pot
The player that eventually wins all of the gelt is declared Hanukkah winner and champion.
As with most Jewish holidays, food plays a big role in the celebration and Hanukkah is no exception! In commemoration of the burning of the oil in the temple, fried foods are a very popular treat on Hanukkah. Potato pancakes, or latkes in Yiddish, are very popular as well as sufganiyot, a deep-fried fruit-filled pastry very similar to a jelly donut.
Want to make your own latkes for Hannukah? Here’s our fool-proof recipe:
- 2 potatoes peeled
- 1 small onion peeled
- 2 eggs
- 3 tbsp. milk
- 2 tbsp. melted butter
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- black pepper
- butter, for frying
- sour cream
Grate potatoes and onions into a medium-sized mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, combine eggs, milk and melted butter and blend. Then add flour, salt and pepper and process to mix. Pour over potatoes and onions and stir to mix. Drop by quarter cupfuls on a prepared griddle or skillet. Spread to make a 4″ pancake. Cook until brown on both sides, turning as needed. Serve with sour cream.
This holiday offer some of the most fun ways to celebrate your Jewish heritage. So light the menorah, bust out the dreidel, eat some tasty treats and enjoy Hanukkah to the fullest!