Hanukkah — The Festival of Lights
Hanukkah — The Festival of Lights
Most of you probably can’t imagine not having Christmas to look forward to every year, but for millions of people — including me — December 25 is just another day on the calendar. I grew up in an area that was predominantly Jewish, so although some homes sported Christmas lights and Christmas trees, we never felt like we were missing anything. Besides, we had Hanukkah.
Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah isn’t celebrated at the same time each year, and it lasts for eight days and nights. (More about how that came to be later.) My memories of this festive holiday have nothing to do with why it’s celebrated or even receiving gifts — but are of fierce competitions with my sisters to see whose menorah stayed lit the longest.
Each of the three of us had our own menorah, a candelabrum with eight branches and a central socket for the candle that lights all the others, called the shamash. On the first night of Hanukkah, one candle is lit, so a total of two provide light; on the second night, two candles are lit, for a total of three — and so on, until all eight candles are lit on the last night, for a total of nine.
We lit our candles before dinner, and could see the menorahs from our table. I’m not sure how the tradition started, but we made it a contest to see whose menorah had the last candle standing, and there might have been a small prize — maybe $1 — for the winner. I don’t recall what we ate or even what gifts we got — other than the fact that the best was saved for the last night — but I do remember how upset we girls would get when someone walked quickly past the menorahs, in what we considered an act of sabotage to produce a candle-snuffing breeze.
Now that I’m an adult, our antics seem to trivialize the holiday, because Hanukkah does have a rich origin — based on a miracle — but as I’ve said before, we definitely practiced Jewish “light.”
The Story of Hanukkah
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where according to legend Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt. Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar and usually falls in November or December. This year, it starts at sundown on December 2. (A few years ago, it started at sundown on Thanksgiving, an unusual occurrence to be sure.)
The events that inspired Hanukkah took place during a particularly turbulent phase of Jewish history. Around 200 B.C., Judea — also known as the Land of Israel — came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria, who allowed the Jews who lived there to continue practicing their religion. His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, proved less benevolent; ancient sources recount that he outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. In 168 B.C., his soldiers descended upon Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls.
Led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons, a large-scale rebellion broke out against Antiochus and the Seleucid monarchy. When Mattathias died in 166 B.C., his son Judah, known as Judah Maccabee (“the Hammer”), took the helm; within two years, the Jews had successfully driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, relying largely on guerilla warfare tactics. Judah called on his followers to cleanse the Second Temple, rebuild its altar and light its menorah — the gold candelabrum whose seven branches represented knowledge and creation and were meant to be kept burning every night.
According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most central texts, Judah Maccabee and the other Jews who took part in the rededication witnessed what they believed to be a miracle. Even though there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights, leaving them time to find a fresh supply. This wondrous event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival. (The first Book of the Maccabees tells another version of the story, describing an eight-day celebration that followed the rededication but making no reference to the miracle of the oil.)
Other Interpretations of the Hanukkah Story
Some modern historians offer a radically different interpretation of the Hanukkah tale. In their view, Jerusalem under Antiochus IV had erupted into civil war between two camps of Jews: those who had assimilated into the dominant culture that surrounded them, adopting Greek and Syrian customs, and those who were determined to impose Jewish laws and traditions, even if by force. The traditionalists won out in the end, with the Hasmonean dynasty — led by Judah Maccabee’s brother and his descendants —wresting control of the Land of Israel from the Seleucids and maintaining an independent Jewish kingdom for more than a century.
Jewish scholars have also suggested that the first Hanukkah may have been a belated celebration of Sukkot, which the Jews had not had the chance to observe during the Maccabean Revolt. One of the Jewish religion’s most important holidays, Sukkot consists of seven days of feasting, prayer and festivities.
The Hanukkah celebration revolves around the kindling of the menorah, known in Hebrew as the hanukiah. While the candles are lit each night, blessings are recited, and the menorah is prominently displayed in a window as a reminder to others of the miracle that inspired the holiday.
In another allusion to the Hanukkah miracle, traditional Hanukkah foods are fried in oil. Potato pancakes (known as latkes) and jam-filled donuts (sufganiyot) are particularly popular in many Jewish households. Other Hanukkah customs include playing with four-sided spinning tops called dreidels and exchanging gifts. In recent decades, particularly in North America, Hanukkah has exploded into a major commercial phenomenon, largely because it falls near or overlaps with Christmas. From a religious perspective, however, it remains a relatively minor holiday that places no restrictions on working, attending school or other activities.
Here are a few tidbits about Hanukkah:
On a Friday, the menorah should be lit before sunset, while on a Saturday, it should be lit after nightfall.
The Hanukkah candles must burn for at least half an hour after nightfall.
Hanukkah and Chanukah are both accepted spellings for the holiday.
In addition to being known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is also considered the Feast of Dedication.
The first president to celebrate Hanukkah in the White House was Harry Truman.
Five million jelly donuts are consumed in Israel during the eight days of Hanukkah.
As an aside, while I can’t speak for all Jewish people, it doesn’t bother me when people say Merry Christmas to me or send me Christmas cards. If I send out cards, however, they’ll say Happy Holidays as a nod to the many holidays celebrated by various religions around the end of the year. And, I typically choose wrapping paper for gifts that depicts winter scenes or is shiny gold or silver rather than featuring a pattern associated with Christmas.
Any Jews out there have some Hanukkah memories to share? We’d love to hear them.