Celebrating Hanukkah: 8 Things You Probably Don't Know
If you're like me, you did not grow up in a Jewish household and really don't have much first-hand knowledge of celebrating Hanukkah. Aside from recognizing the shape of the Menorah and finding amusement in Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song," I have not had a lot of exposure to celebrating Hanukkah or any other Jewish traditions, for that matter. Like so many other holidays we grow up somewhat aware of, I had no idea of the rich history and culture behind this special time of the year.
Having never truly been exposed to the holiday, one of the first misconceptions I had about celebrating Hanukkah was that it was the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. Although it does fall in the month of December and some Jewish families do exchange gifts during this time, the holiday is not celebrating Christ's birth, nor is it related to Christmas in any way. A few Decembers ago, I began learning more about it when my sister invited me to my first Shabbat, where I had the opportunity to experience some of the Jewish traditions associated with this holiday.
After experiencing this, I've come to realize that Hanukkah presents us with an opportunity to learn about and share the traditions and stories that hold much meaning for Jewish families around the globe. As parents, we should help our children to develop an understanding and appreciation of the history and culture of God's chosen people. So in my quest to teach my kids about Hanukkah, I've come up with a collection of eight things everyone should know about celebrating Hanukkah.
Is it Hanukkah, Chanukah, or Hanukah?
Taking pride in my spelling prowess, the first thing I wanted to learn about Hanukkah was how to spell it properly. I was surprised to find that there are twice as many ways to spell it as there are days in the holiday; sixteen! Interestingly, the reason there are so many different spellings is that the English alphabet is incapable of replicating the guttural sounds of Hebrew letters, so we have devised many different spellings in our attempt to phonetically portray the Hebrew word in English. So, in essence, the answer to my question is, “Yes. It's Hanukkah, Chanukah, and Hanukah.” By the way, the Hebrew meaning of the word is "dedication" and here's why.
Reclamation and Rededication of the Holy Temple
The history of celebrating Hanukkah began long before Christ's birth and dates back to 165 B.C. During this time the Jewish people were under the dominion of the Greek ruler King Antiochus III from Syria. Under his rule, they were forced to worship Hellenic Greek gods and forbidden from celebrating their Jewish rituals in the temple. Infuriated by this oppression, the Jewish Maccabees rose up to overcome the Syrian army and were able to reclaim and rededicate the Holy Temple. Since that time, Hanukkah is a celebration of this victorious event and serves as a time of renewal and rededication.
The Eternal Flame, Festival of Lights, and Menorah
Once the Maccabees reclaimed the Holy Temple, they desired to rededicate it by reigniting the Eternal Flame, just as King Solomon and the Hebrews did when they initially dedicated the Holy Temple. Unfortunately, the battle left them with only one day's worth of consecrated oil to burn. While they were in search of additional fuel for the flame, the shortage of purified oil presented an opportunity for God to work a miracle. The small supply of oil lasted much longer than one day. In fact, it lasted eight days! To commemorate this miraculous event, Jewish families celebrate Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights. This celebration involves using a Shamash or "helper" candle to light oil in a candelabra called a Menorah, or alternatively, eight individual candles: lighting one additional candle each night for a total of eight nights.
Hanukkah-Save the Date
People have been lighting the menorah for centuries, but it has been increasing in popularity since the late 1800s. Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration that always starts on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. However, the holiday doesn't always fall in the same month or on the same day each year because the Hebrew calendar is based on the lunar year, unlike the solar calendar typically observed in the West. It typically lands in November or December on the Gregorian calendar, so you can easily see how the timing causes people to confuse it with the gift-giving Christmas celebration. Hanukkah 2016 begins on Saturday, December 24th and ends on Sunday, January 1st.
Hanukkah Gift Exchange
We've all heard about a Chinese gift exchange, but what is a Hanukkah gift exchange like? Modern-day Hanukkah celebrations involve exchanging gelt, a Yiddish term for money. Jewish coinage has a played a large role in Hanukkah, but its significance has changed over time. When the Maccabees reclaimed the Holy Temple, they also reclaimed the freedom to make and exchange their own tender. The coins that were eventually minted had symbols of the menorah and shew bread, symbolizing the significance of the Jewish people's independence from Syria. Over time, gelt-gift exchanges have made their way into the Hanukkah celebration to teach Jewish children about charity. Since 1958, commemorative Hanukkah gelt coins have been released signifying the connection between modern-day Judaism and the rich history behind Hanukkah. Gelt is also commonly used to create the pot for the popular Jewish game of Dreidel.
Spinning the Dreidel on Hanukkah
Playing the Dreidel game is centric to celebrating Hanukkah. If you've ever spun a top, you’ll understand how a dreidel works. Dreidels have four sides with four Hebrew letters printed on them: nun, gimel, hei, and shin. These letters are the initials for the phrase, "nes gadol haya sham" which means, "A great miracle happened there." Players take turns spinning the dreidel and the side it lands on determines if you do nothing, win, lose, or draw from the gelt pot. Families continue taking turns spinning the dreidel until one of the participants wins all of the gelt. Other variations include spinning the dreidel for chocolate gelt, and the one holding all the candy at the end is the winner.
Hanukkah and Shabbat
Similar to many religious and cultural celebrations around the globe, Hanukkah is family-centric. Most families observe a special Shabbat, or the Sabbath, when celebrating Hanukkah. It is observed as a day of rest and celebration, beginning at sunset on Friday and ending on Saturday evening after nightfall. Although Shabbat is celebrated every Sabbath throughout the year, the Shabbat observed during Hanukkah is a very special time, looked forward to by adults and children alike. During this time, families light the menorah and Shabbat candles, read psalms, share kiddush blessings, pray, sing Jewish hymns, drink wine, break bread together, feast, and depart from one another with blessings, and passing down the tradition from one generation to the next.
Like many other cultures, feasting plays a significant role in the holiday celebration. Celebrating Hanukkah is no exception, but there are a lot of food preparation rituals that must be observed as part of Shabbat. One example is that food must be prepared ahead of time and kept warm over a flame to refrain from “working” on the day of rest. Other foods are fried ahead of time and served during Hanukkah to commemorate the miracle of the oil. Some of the most popular things you'll find on the menu are:
Brisket-kosher beef that melts in your mouth.
Challah-scrumptious and beautifully braided bread.
Latkes, better known as potato pancakes.
Sufganiyot, a sweet jelly-filled donut.
Now that you’ve tasted a little bit of this Jewish holiday I encourage you to do some research about celebrating Hanukkah for yourself. Like me, you’ll come to realize that Christmas and Hanukkah are both unique and observe different traditions. Take the time to understand the significance of the Festival of Lights, light a menorah, and celebrate Shabbat with your family. Pass along the rich history of the Jewish people with generations to come by starting the tradition this December 24th.
If you're looking for an education option that teaches your child the rich history of Hanukkah and other cultural holidays, consider Enlightium Academy. We are a fully accredited online private Christian school that allows students to work at their own pace with a flexible schedule. Our affordable tuition, individualized curriculum, and simple admissions process maintains the advantages of a home school education while also preparing students well for college. Additionally, Enlightium offers record-keeping and has worked with families in all 50 states to meet state requirements. Feel free to call us at 866-488-4818 if you have any questions about transferring to Enlightium Academy. With the second semester approaching quickly, we would love to share what it would look like to enroll your student in Enlightium Academy. Happy Hanukkah to you and yours!