Chances are you’ve heard of Hanukkah in one of its various spellings. Hanukkah (also commonly written as Chanukah) is the Jewish festival of lights celebrated in the wintertime. It commemorates the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire, which had not allowed them to practice their own religion.
Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, starting on the 25th of Kislev, which is the third month on the Hebrew calendar. The reason for it being eight days is given by its origin story. In the Seleucid Empire, under the control of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Jews were ordered to worship Greek gods, and the city’s Second Temple was desecrated after an altar to Zeus was erected and pigs were sacrificed inside. A Jewish priest named Matthias led a revolt against the Empire, which was eventually taken over by his son, Judah Maccabee, after his death. Judah Maccabee led the Jewish people in cleansing the Second Temple by restoring its altar and lighting its menorah, a traditional Jewish candelabrum. It is believed that the Jewish people only had enough oil to light the menorah for one night, but the candles continued on for eight nights, giving Hanukkah its eight-day length.
On Hanukkah, Jewish people light the menorah each night and recite blessings for the lighting of the candles and for the miracle that took place to make way for this holiday. The menorah lit on Hanukkah differs slightly from the one lit at the Second Temple. The menorah lit on Hanukkah, appropriately called the hanukkiah, has nine candles as opposed to seven in order for there to be one candle per day of Hanukkah. The candle in the middle of the hanukkiah is called the shamash, and it is lit first, then used to light the rest of the candles for that night. On the first night, there is one candle in addition to the shamash, with another candle being added each night.
Aside from lighting the menorah, there are plenty of other traditions in celebrating Hanukkah. Many families will typically sit down forn a game of dreidel, a top-spinning game played for a prize of chocolate coins called gelt. The game involves spinning a four-sided dreidel, which has four different Hebrew letters giving instruction for the players. The four letters are nun, gimmel, hey, and shin, and they correspond to the first letter of each word in the phrase “a great miracle happened there.” However, on dreidels sold in Israel, the shin is switched for a pe in order to represent the phrase “a great miracle happened here.” Many families will also give a gift to each other every night of Hanukkah to keep with the season of giving. Playing dreidel and gift-giving is often accompanied with eating a boatload of food, traditionally latkes and sufganiyot. Latkes, the more commonly known of the two, are potato pancakes, while sufganiyot are the sweeter dish, and are essentially jelly donuts.
Hanukkah, no matter how you may spell it, is always a happy and joyous time to come together and celebrate, just as all of the winter holidays are.