Hanukkah may fit into the same, one-size-fits-all “Happy Holidays” greeting, but it’s very different from its neighbors on the December holiday calendar.
The Jewish Festival of Lights, which began Tuesday and runs through Wednesday, is a celebration of freedom. It’s not considered as significant to Judaism as Christmas is to Christianity, though its popularity has grown in the last century.
In Hebrew, the word Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukkah, means “dedication.” The holiday celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees, a group of Jewish people, defeated the ruling Syrian-Green army in a three-year war. The Greek king of Syria had previously prohibited Jewish rituals and had ordered Jews to worship Greek gods.
When the temple was rededicated, the Maccabees could only find one day’s worth of oil to light the temple menorah, a branched candelabrum. To their surprise, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days.
To commemorate the miracle, Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and nights. Each night another candle is lit on the menorah, or hanukiyah, a nine-candle candelabrum. Blessings are spoken during the candle lighting and traditionally, the hanukiyah is placed in a window to share with others the miracle it signifies.
Other traditions include eating fried foods — another reference to the oil — especially latkes, a type of potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, jelly doughnuts without holes, especially popular in Israel.
A popular game involves spinning a four-sided top, or dreidel. Each side of the dreidel has a different Jewish letter on it, which make up the phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” or in English, “A great miracle happened there.”
Gifts are exchanged, although some attribute this practice to the holiday’s proximity to Christmas, viewing gift-giving as a way to offset the potential hurt feelings of Jewish children whose friends receive Christmas presents.