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Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah! But Wait, What is Hanukkah?

By Rachel Wolk | December 5, 2022

We have finally arrived at the holiday season: Christmas movies, trees, pajamas, and signs filled with red and green galore are everywhere. But there is another holiday filled with just as much festivity, crossing through Christmas, starting on December 19 and leading up to the 26th. You might be guessing Hanukkah (or, Chanukkah, if you prefer to enunciate the ch- sound).

Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century BCE, marking the return from exile in Babylon. The Jews were subject to the oppressive Greek Empire, being forced to bow down to their foreign rulers and eat the flesh of a pig, two practices which Jews are prohibited from taking part in. A group of soldiers, called the Maccabees, had to light a menorah (Hebrew word for “lamp”) to anew their temple. Though they only had enough pure oil to last the day, the oil burned for eight. The lighting of the menorah symbolizes an everlasting flame and the creation of the world in seven days, with the center candle being the Sabbath. The menorah also symbolizes the gift of life and the presence of God.

One tradition that has lasted throughout history is lighting the menorah. For each night of the eight nights, families will gather together to say the blessing over the menorah and light the candles. There may only be eight nights, but there are nine branches on a menorah with the intention of a holder candle called the shamash. The shamash is used to light the other eight candles. The candles are always lit from left to right and once a candle is lit, the family will leave the menorah by a window as it fills the dark room with light.

There are many traditions and ways that Jews observe Hanukkah, from games to food, to gift giving, like dreidel. The dreidel originated in Germany known as a teetotum, with the carving of the letters on each side indicating “nothing”, “everything”, “half”, and “put in”. It’s fun for both children and adults, and no age limit is necessary. A dreidel is a spinning top, with Hebrew letters on its four sides. The letters nun (nothing), gimel (everything), hey (half), and shin (put in) indicate how players trade their gelt, or their chocolate in coin-style wrapping.

The players put the gelt in a big bowl and it can be won depending on what the dreidel falls on. Often when playing dreidel, children will sing the famous dreidel song! Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay. And when it's dry and ready, then dreidel I shall play…

The foods of Hanukkah mainly consist of potato pancakes called latkes and sufganiyot which is Hebrew for jelly donuts. Jews celebrate the holiday with fried foods like latkes and jelly donuts to commemorate the oil which burned for eight days. However, not only are fried foods eaten but also traditional Jewish meals such as brisket, a large cut of cow meat, and kugel, a sweet, baked casserole that tastes like egg noodles.

A highlight that remains everyone’s favorite part of Hanukkah is the presents. Each night, a gift is given. Originally, giving gifts every night was not always a tradition. However, after World War II, Jewish parents wanted to give their children gifts every night so they wouldn’t feel left out from their friends who celebrated Christmas, since the holidays fall around the same time.

Happy Hanukkah!


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