Hanukkah, Oh Chanukah, Come light the menorah …
What you need to know about the most well known of Jewish holidays
A meme going around the Jewish community this year says it all about Chanukah: “This is your annual reminder not to ask Jewish people when Hanukkah is. We don’t know either.”
Since it’s our job to tell everyone information, we will actually help everyone out with the dates of Chanukah in 2023. Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, starts the night of Thursday, Dec. 7, this year. It will last through the final candle — which will be lit the night of Thursday, Dec. 14.
This holiday is quite well-known because of its proximity to Christmas, but it seems to be a mystery to many; our goal today is to “shatter the myths” around Chanukah.
And so, we answer a few of the most frequently asked questions about Hanukkah (or Chanukah or Hanukah or Chanuka) here.
Every year, we post this article, with a few edits and updates, so if sounds familiar to some readers, it very well may be.
(And if you are in Champaign-Urbana area, check out our “how to celebrate Chanukah in Champaign-Urbana” if you are looking for resources and events).
Hanukkah may be one of the most well-known Jewish holidays, but it is hardly the most religiously significant.
Hanukkah 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.
Hanukkah 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.
As the story goes, a miracle happened when the oil actually lasted for eight days. (Think of it this way: it would be as if your phone was on 10 percent and you had no charger, but it stayed on for eight days!)
While the message of Hanukkah 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 Hanukkah, nor do other regular activities.
- Unlike some Jewish holidays, we don’t take any time off work or school for Hanukkah observances.
- The main religious observance for Chanukah is lighting candles on the Hanukkah menorah each night, generally in the home or wherever one might be.
- There are not special services added to the religious calendar.
Lighting a menorah can happen anywhere. A Hanukkah menorah has nine branches: one for each night, as well as a “helper” candle called the shamash that lights the other candles (see the photo below — the shamash is the one set apart from the other eight).
Since we don’t live near family, we have often celebrated Hanukkah by doing candle lighting blessings over FaceTime with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Of course that all took on new meaning in 2020, when we did virtual Chanukah every night.
We celebrate Chanukah with family and friends when it is convenient. Family celebrations usually consist of gift exchanges and latke eating.
Yes, some people give gifts on Hanukkah, but there is no one way to do it.
Presents were not part of the Hanukkah tradition until very recently, and mostly it is an American construct. Probably the biggest myth about Hanukkah is that everyone gets eight presents — i.e., one every night.
Every family has its own Hanukkah 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. In our family, gift-giving is centered around children. Other families might include adults in gift giving traditions (or do some variation of a white elephant exchange).
Traditionally, children receive money for Hanukkah, called “gelt.” Nowadays gelt is also given in the form of chocolate coins.
Some families do not give gifts at all.
The dates we celebrate Hanukkah never change.
Yep, it’s true — Hanukkah 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.
This year, Chanukah comes on the early side — no overlap with Christmas .
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 Hanukkah — 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! My daughter is convinced that we just need to eat French fries and we’re good.
Jelly donuts (called sufganiyot) are very popular in Israel — occasionally they can be found locally, for example as a seasonal special at Pandamonium Doughnuts.
(Disclaimer: these are my opinions. Some might disagree.) Happy Hanukkah 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.
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