Ah, yes, Chanukah. The festival of lights. The “Jewish Christmas”. The vacation that Adam Sandler wrote a song about.
For Jews, however, Hanukkah is not really a religious holiday, although due to its proximity to Christmas, it is often considered the most important Jewish holiday. It’s not. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover, for example, are more religiously observed, although Chanukah certainly has cultural significance.
As a child, Chanukah meant that I could receive gifts just like my predominantly Christian classmates and not feel left out. It also meant nodding politely (and always doing it) when someone said “Merry Christmas” from mid-December to late December, and trying to remember to say it back.
This year my family can finally celebrate the holidays as normal again after spending the last year lighting candles on Zoom.
So if Chanukah isn’t that religious, why all the fuss?
Disclaimer: Like any minority, I am just one member among many, and my experiences do not reflect those of all Jews.
In case you missed:Celebrate Chanukah? Here is everything you need for a festive holiday
What exactly is Chanukah and when is it?
Known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC. .
To mark their victory, the Jews wanted to reclaim the temple and light its menorah, but only found enough pure olive oil for one day, according to Chabad.org. This one-day supply lasted eight and is considered a miracle in the Jewish faith.
Every year, Chanukah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, a month in the Hebrew calendar. It lasts 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? All you need to know about the Jewish holiday this weekend.
Hold on. Did the oil last 8 days?
No. Well, maybe. I was sure this was true until my seventh grade class in Hebrew School when someone told me it wasn’t.
The eight-day story of the oil dates back to former rabbis, who appeared to have made up the story by discussing the lighting of candles during the holidays, reports the Washington Post. Some strongly believe in the history of oil, while others are more inclined to focus on the messages / lessons that the holidays teach.
Food for thought:Should only Jewish actresses play Jewish roles? Some say Hollywood has a “Jewface” problem.
Also, is it Chanukah or Chanukah?
Both are correct. In fact, there are many variations of how to spell the name of the holiday in English, according to the Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries.
The differences arise because the name of the holiday comes from Hebrew, which does not use the Latin alphabet. According to Merriam-Webster, some Hebrew sounds do not have an exact match for Latin letters, which creates multiple spellings.
The most common spelling today is Chanukah, but don’t be surprised if you also see Chanukah or Chanukah, according to both dictionaries.
Check out this USA TODAY Life feature for a deeper dive into Hanukkah spellings.
The spelling:Is it Chanukah or Chanukah? Why the Jewish holiday has several spellings
What Happens During Chanukah?
To mark the feast, Jews light a candle each evening on a nine-branched menorah. The ninth candle – the shamash, (“assistant” or “attendant”) – is used to light the other eight.
Lighted menorahs are displayed prominently, often in display cases. Playing with spinning tops called dreidels and exchanging gifts are other Hanukkah traditions for celebrating the holiday. Don’t forget the gelt, chocolate coins that adults give to children during Hanukkah (a symbol of money Jewish parents would give their children as gifts; “gelt” means money in Yiddish).
Larger family gatherings during the pandemic might not happen this year – especially if people aren’t vaccinated – meaning that it will be up to individual households to figure out in-person gift-giving and dreidel spinning. I know I hope to receive some gelt in the mail and in person this season.
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Wait, Hanukkah isn’t as important as Christmas?
No, at least not in the traditional religious sense. In fact, if you google “Hanukkah, that’s okay,” you’ll find a plethora of articles that can tell you the same.
That said, it remains significant for other reasons. When I asked other Jews what makes Hanukkah special on my Twitter feed in 2019, my subscribers talked about “latkes”, the potato pancakes usually eaten during the holidays. (People also eat jelly-filled donuts, or sufganiyot. Do you have any? Fried food.)
Like other Jewish holidays, haunting Hebrew hymns are part of the occasion. Nickelodeon’s cartoon “Rugrats,” aired a Hanukkah-themed episode in 1996 that bills itself as educational, engaging and entertaining.
And who can forget the gifts? Growing up, it was fun to look forward to a different gift each night – some cheaper like pajamas and art supplies. The best (and probably the worst year, for the adults in my family, anyway) was when my grandparents bought each of the dozen or so grandchildren’s few Razor scooters. As we got older, the tradition turned into a great gift for the time, although we still light the candles.
Learn more about Jewish holidays:This is America: I returned to the synagogue for the major Jewish holidays. It was like coming home.
Okay, but why do people really fuss about Chanukah?
You can thank (or not thank) American Jews for this. It is questionable whether this was a direct response to Christmas or an effort to encourage young people to spend time in synagogue, Vox reports. The Atlantic notes that the story of Chanukah isn’t even in the Torah, the Jewish Bible. For comparison: this is the same bible that included my part of Torah, Bamidbar, which literally consisted of counting tribes around a sacred tabernacle.
Like most Jewish teachings, “it highlights one of the most important themes in Jewish history: the struggle to practice Judaism when powerful forces seek to extinguish it,” writes Lauren Markoe of the Religion News Service. Also: “This serves a particular purpose: an opportunity to negotiate the twin and competing pressures of ethnic tension and assimilation,” writes Emma Green in The Atlantic (i.e. we are Maccabees, hear we roar).
Unfortunately, anti-Semitism has remained more than widespread. I’m not a super religious person, but after re-educating myself on the holidays by researching this article, I’ll be proud to light the candles to remind myself of the most important part of the holiday for me: fighting for the right to to exist.
Hopefully in 2022 that will mean my family and I celebrate (and fight) together more frequently.
Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of Hanukkah stories from previous years.
Contribution: Ryan W. Miller and David Jackson, USA TODAY
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