Ah, Hanukkah- the magical holiday about hope, about holding and fighting on to your beliefs, your traditions, and about having a joyous celebration for 8 long nights. It’s one of my favorite holidays and one of the few that is purely celebratory. We celebrate the Maccabees triumph, and we celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting. This year Hanukkah started this past Sunday evening and goes until Christmas Day (so our original gift giving of the first and last night is not happening this year- I’m thinking first and fourth? Who knows).
This year is a special one as it is the first year, I am going to be sharing Hanukkah in a real way. I’ve been invited into the boys’ classroom to share the holiday, as well as our local library for Storytime. It feels good, in the light of all of the rampant Jew Hatred lately, to be able to share the joy of Judaism through this holiday. To be able to share my Jewish-ness in a real way, in a way that is meaningful.
Last year I really talked about the holiday of Hanukkah – you can read that HERE (I also talk about the Christmas-ization and the attempt of companies to profit off of Hanukkah more and more). This year, because I am teaching in a public school, I am not able to touch on any religious aspects of the holiday. This actually works out well as a) Judaism is an ethnicity before a religion (though the two are closely tied and it is technically considered and ethnoreligion) and b) Hanukkah is a minor religious holiday- not even really religious at all beyond the fact that they are praying in a temple.
Since we aren’t fully going into the details of the celebration of Hanukkah (beyond the basic festival of lights), we are going to be leaning heavily into the traditions of the holidays and what exactly we do to celebrate.
Light the Hanukkiah
So, I think this one is pretty obvious if you know anything about Hanukkah and it’s one of the most important, key things. Every night we light one candle on the menorah celebrating every night the oil lasted. We light the candles from right to left using the Shamash (Helper) Candle. Now, a Menorah and a Hanukkiah are two different things. They are often used interchangeably- especially by non-Jews as the menorah is not as universally recognized. A Hanukkiah is specific to Hanukkah and has 8 candles plus the ninth Shamash candle (so a total of 9 candles). A menorah is a more standard 6 candles, plus a seventh helper candle (a total of 7). There is a difference, and to see a standard menorah on a Hannukah shirt bugs me.
Every night of Hanukkah at sundown we kick the evening off with lighting the menorah, some families might light multiples) before getting down to the celebration.
Games for Hanukkah
Another obvious one if you know anything about Hanukkah is the game of Dreidel, but maybe you don’t know the history of the game…
So back in King Antiochus’ reign, the Jews were not allowed to study Torah or practice any of their beliefs, this is all well-known knowledge at this point. However, the Jewish people have always found a way, even if it is under darkness and in total secrecy. The Torah Scholars in Antiochus’ day would quickly hide the torah scrolls and studies and pull out the spinning tops when the Greek soldiers would approach. They were “playing” not studying. Later this game would get the name “dreidel” (Yiddish for “to turn around”) and the letters on the dreidel stand for “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” or “A Great Miracle Happened Here” (I would have the appropriate Hebrew here, but Word and WordPress do not take kindly to inserting Hebrew into English- it reads different and then messes the entire document up).
Dreidel is a fairly simple game that can descend into competitive chaos and great fun. Each side represents a different task- Nun – nothing, Shin – put one in, Hay – get half, and Gimel- get everything. Each player can start with the same amount of gelt, and then the center pot has enough gelt for each player to have one (so 6 players, the pot needs a minimum of 6 pieces- you can choose whether this comes from a separate amount or if the players put in to start). If you do not have enough gelt you can also use chocolate chips, raisins, pennies, whatever little treat. Each player gets a turn to spin the dreidel and follow the direction. Once a player runs out, they’re out! The game ends when there is only one player left with all the gelt.
What we eat during the Holiday
I’ve actually been asked this this year and the answer is…a lot of food. Food is at the heart of the Jewish community- we show so much of ourselves, our community, our family with food. It’s one of the unspoken love languages (we will ALWAYS try to feed you or fret over food in some way). Most of our holidays have some element of food specifics- i.e., we eat a round challah on Rosh Hashanah, fasting is how we atone for our sins on Yom Kippur, we don’t eat leavened bread during Passover, I mean every holiday has some food element- whether it’s in the traditional foods or a more major atonement or guidance revolving the holiday.
Hanukkah is no different. Most of the foods that we eat and enjoy revolve around…oil! Shocker since we are celebrating the miracle of oil and light.
First up- latkes. Latkes are a potato pancake. Literally. That’s it. Shredded potato’s (with some other ingredients) fried in oil and then consumed with either apple sauce or sour cream- which triggers some lively debates (apple sauce for the win over here).
You’ll also here a food called Sufganiyot, which are fried jelly filled donuts- think of it like if a beignet and a jelly donut had a baby. A delight (if you like that sort of thing) for the senses!
Again, the main theme with both of these is that it is fried in oil. When we taste and smell the fried oil it is supposed to remind us of the miracle of the oil lasting all 8 nights.
Most of our holiday celebrations are met with a main course of Brisket. Fun fact- brisket is the easiest of the meats to slice Kosher and it is more affordable, which is why we tend to eat it on all the holidays (it’s also delicious).
Final- almost all Hanukkah celebrations contain some extent of Gelt. Meaning “money” (Yiddish), Gelt are wrapped chocolate coins commonly used when playing dreidel. They also signify the “gifts” that were originally given to children during Hanukkah.
Finally, a note on gifts.
Gifts are a fairly modern idea that mostly American/European Jews participate in, that’s right modern and only on our Western side of the continent (Israeli’s do not gift give during Hanukkah). The thought is that when Jewish families became more “mainstream” and Jewish children more integrated into our heavily Christian leading society, the idea of giving a gift during Hanukkah was introduced as a way for children to not feel “left out” in the rush of Christmas gifts. This tradition is vastly different from family to family, community to community, heck even year to year.
Any Hanukkah questions? Leave them down below!