(Editor’s Note: We first wrote this story years ago, but have updated it to reflect dates for 2017).
Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, starts the night of Tuesday, Dec. 12 this year. This holiday is quite well-known because of its proximity to Christmas, but how much do you really know about it? We thought we would answer a few of the most frequently asked questions about Chanukah (or Hanukkah or Hanukah or Chanuka) here.
Chanukah may be one of the most well-known Jewish holidays, but it is hardly the most religiously significant. Chanukah celebrates the aftermath of a military victory by Jews (the Maccabees) who fought the religious oppression of Assyrian rule more than 2200 years ago. The Jews took back the holy Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by the Assyrians, who had used it to worship idols and allowed farm animals to reside there. Chanukah celebrates a miracle — when the Maccabees wanted to light the menorah as part of the re-dedication, they could only find a tiny flask of oil, enough to light it for only one day. A miracle happened when the oil actually lasted for 8 days. While the message of Chanukah is a beautiful one – one that celebrates faith, miracles, and dedication to our people and our traditions — the story is not found in Jewish scripture.
Work doesn’t stop on Chanukah, nor do other regular activities. I’ve been asked several times if I am going “home” for Chanukah (ie to be with family). We typically go “home” for the “major” holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Passover. This year my extended family will celebrate Chanukah together when it’s convenient, and probably we will do some candle lighting blessings via over FaceTime; we are grateful to have plenty of local friends with whom we will share the holiday. Unlike other Jewish holidays, work doesn’t stop for Chanukah, and we don’t have lengthy services at synagogue. The main religious observance is lighting candles on the Chanukah menorah each night, generally in the home or wherever one might be. A Chanukah menorah has nine branches – one for each night, as well as a “helper” candle called the shamash that lights the other candles.
Yes, some people give gifts on Chanukah, but there is no one way to do it. Presents were not part of the Chanukah tradition until very recently, and mostly it is an American construct. Probably the biggest myth about Chanukah is that everyone gets eight presents – one every night. Every family has its own Chanukah gift-giving traditions. When I was growing up, I got a gift just about every night, but they weren’t all from my parents – one night the gift would be from a sibling, the next an aunt and uncle, etc. Some families do not give gifts at all – traditionally, children receive money for Chanukah, called “gelt.” Nowadays gelt is also given in the form of chocolate coins. Gift-giving is usually centered around children.
The dates we celebrate Chanukah never change. Yep, it’s true — Chanukah always starts on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, but because the Hebrew calendar is based on a lunar calendar, the “English” date changes every year. Sometimes Chanukah isn’t even in December (think “Thanksgivukkah” a few years ago).
There is not one “true” English spelling of the holiday’s name. The name is a Hebrew word, meaning dedication, that has been transliterated into English. That’s why you’ll see the various spellings – Chanukah/Hanukkah/Hanukah/Chanuka/Hanukka. It is Associated Press newspaper style to spell it “Hanukkah,” which often is seen in the press; I prefer “Chanukah”. In Hebrew, there’s only ONE way to spell it!
We get to eat foods fried in oil on Chanukah — and they have zero calories. So I made that last part up, but part of celebrating Chanukah customarily means eating latkes and other foods fried in oil, to remind us of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. And let me just say that latkes are not potato pancakes — they’re much better! Jelly donuts (called sufganiyot) are very popular in Israel; my daughter is convinced that we just need to eat French fries and we’re good.
(Disclaimer: these are my opinions. Some might disagree. Happy Chanukah to all who celebrate!)
Laura Weisskopf Bleill is the co-founder and editor of chambanamoms.com. You can reach her at laura@chambanamoms(dot)com.