What do any of us really know about Hanukkah (or Chanukah or Ḥanukah)? To some, it’s “The Jewish Christmas” but that does no service to the winter festival and draws false parallels when they are so different.
When is Hanukkah?
The word itself is Hebrew for “dedication”. It lasts for eight days, starting on the eve of 25th Kislev in the Jewish calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, that usually puts it in mid-December leading up to the Winter Solstice. In 2017 it falls between 12th-20th December.
What Does Hanukkah Celebrate or Mark?
The Holy Land was ruled some 1,200 years ago by an empire born following the death of Alexander The Great. Named The Seleucid Empire after his general Seleucus and ruled by his bloodline, they tried to impart Greek culture and customs, outlawing Judaism. The area had been fought over for centuries; it was once in the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. Just a few decades before, the Seleucids forced Egypt out and claimed it for themselves.
But the Jewish people rose up under Judah the Maccabee and drove the Greeks from the Levant, reclaiming the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. However, academia gives us a different story. Antiochus, the Seleucid Emperor, attempted to intervene in a bitter civil war and ended up taking the wrong side, leading to their overthrow and expulsion.
When the victorious Jews went to light the Temple’s Menorah, they found a small amount of oil. Yet this oil lasted for eight days. This was considered a miracle and since then, Jews have signified this event during Hanukkah. Some groups believe it actually happened, while more secular-minded Jews point to the lack of documentation in contemporary accounts and its existence only in much younger records.
What Happens at Hanukkah?
Regardless of whether the Miracle of the Oil happened, it is the primary symbol of the period. Each night of this festival holds special significance. Central to the Hanukkah celebration is the menorah, commemorating the eight nights and seven days for which the oil lasted during the relighting of the candles. The menorah goes in a window or elsewhere that its visible to others. Families light one more candle each night until the final one is lit on the eighth night. But the menorah has nine candles. The first is the shamash, or attendant, from which all other candles are lit.
A blessing is performed before each lighting and religious songs recited after too. Part of the daily ritual includes the Hallel prayer and saying of a “grace” after every meal. Normal sabbath rituals are suspended; this is the only time in the Jewish calendar this happens.
It would be no kind of festival without food. Since time immemorial, religious and seasonal festivals have used food as part of their celebration. Hanukkah is no different. Because the ritual and the story behind the festival involves oil, fried foods form a large part of this eight-day period, although it’s also permissible to bake foods in oil too. Typical dishes include:
• Latke, a type of fried potato pancake. Hungarian Jews eat a type filled with cheese
• Bimuelos, a fried ball of dough, which is South American in origin. It’s popular amongst Muslims at Ramadan and some Catholic countries at Christmas
• Doughnuts filled with jam (known as Sufganiyah) but can also be filled with custard, chocolate and caramel
• Cheese and other dairy produce (fried or otherwise) also forms a strong part of the Hanukkah traditions. This is supposed to signify Judith’s assassination of Holofernes and noting the bravery and sacrifices of Jewish women in the past.