Hanukkah, also known as Chanukah or the Festival of Lights, is a Jewish festival that lasts for eight days. In the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah starts on the 25th of Kislev, which corresponds with the time frame between late November and late December. In 2020, the first day of Hanukkah is on December 10, and the festival ends on December 18. This holiday commemorated the Maccabean Revolt when Jews fought against their oppressors during the second century B.C.
Hanukkah is not a public holiday in the United States, so businesses and schools remain open.
During the second century B.C., Judea, or the Land of Israel, was under Syrian control. In 168 B.C. Antiochus IV Epiphanes rose to power, and outlawed Judaism, ordering his soldiers to desecrate the Second Temple and erect an altar to Zeus. This resulted in the massacre of thousands of Jews, and those who survived were forced to convert to the Greek religion.
Over a period of two years, a band of Jews rose up led by Judah the Maccabee, armed themselves, and successfully drove the Seleucids out of Israel, reclaiming their city and their Temple. When they were rebuilding the altar in the Second Temple, they found one cruse of olive oil that had not been touched by the Greeks. They used it to light the Menorah (a candelabrum with seven branches), and that one day supply of oil lasted for eight whole days. This built the foundation for the celebration of Hanukkah.
What is the meaning of Hanukkah?
Hanukkah is a Hebrew word that means "to dedicate", and it signifies the Maccabees' rededication of the Temple to the Jewish faith. It can also be an acronym for "Eight candles, and the halakha is like the House of Hillel", which represents the ritual of lighting one candle in the Menorah for each night of Hanukkah, a practice that was suggested by the House of Hillel.
In modern times, Hanukkah reminds Jews of the issues they had to face throughout their existence of oppression, and the need to fight for religious freedom. It is a holiday with a rich historical meaning.
Hanukkah in the United States
Although the Jewish population in America is now in the millions, in the 19th century there were only a few thousand Jews living in the United States, which meant that basic necessities for the Jewish religion (kosher items and Torah scrolls for example) were hard to find. Because of this, Jews only celebrated major religious events, which meant that holidays like Hanukkah were forgotten. After the Civil War, some Rabbis began hosting special Hanukkah services for children, in order to ensure that the Jewish religion would survive in this new country.
By the 20th century, industrialization allowed people to give their children gifts during the holidays. Jewish people adopted this custom but made it their own, by exchanging gifts on Hanukkah instead of Christmas, asserting their faith in America. In the 1950s, in order to fight against Christmas traditions, Jews in American suburbia embellished Hanukkah celebrations with decorations and gifts, giving it a new special meaning. It is a reminder of the Jewish faith and Jewish family life, during a time when all the focus is on Christmas. Now, Hanukkah has a major significance in the United States.
How to Celebrate Hanukkah
Hanukkah Symbols and Traditions
- Traditionally, during Hanukkah, people eat foods fried in oil, as a reminder of the miracle of the oil during the rededication of the temple.
- It is also a custom to play with a dreidel on Hanukkah. The four sides of the dreidel are an abbreviation for "A great miracle happened there". Children usually play the dreidel for a pot of coins or nuts.
- Although nowadays people exchange gifts on Hanukkah, the tradition is to give gifts of gelt, or money, to children.
- Perhaps the most important Hanukkah tradition is the lighting of the Menorah. On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, one of the candles is lit after sundown, using the shamash to light each candle. This ritual is performed while reciting blessings, and the Menorahs are typically displayed on windows.