A great story of triumph, fried food, gifts, and music makes Hanukkah one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays!
To start with, how to spell it? There are lots of ways, and they’re all pretty much right. Hanukkah, Hannukah, Chanukah, Hanuka, Chanuka, you get the picture. (It’s actually a Hebrew word so as long as it sounds about the same when you write it out in English you’re good to go.) Also, there’s no special synagogue service related to Hanukah, so bonus points if you prefer to celebrate your holidays at home.
There’s lots of history behind the story of Hanukkah but the pared down version is this:
Antiochus (he’s the bad guy) was a Greek king around the time 165 BCE. (That’s 165 years before the year 0). Antiochus wanted all the people in Judea (what we now know as Israel) to be Hellenized – in other words, start acting like Greeks. What with all the Greek gods and sacrifices it’s not surprising that the Jews said “No freaking way!” This made Antiochus furious, so he had his army make a huge mess of the temple in Jerusalem and kill anyone who tried to stand in his way, which, of course, started a war.
The Jews who fought back were called the Maccabees, led by Judah Maccabee. It took a few years, and of course they were outnumbered, but the Maccabees knew their way around the forests and were super stealth and eventually succeeded in sending the Greeks running.
Then it was time to celebrate! One of the first things the Maccabees wanted to do was clean up the temple. When they got there they found a big problem. Every temple has a light that never goes out, called the Eternal Light, which signifies God’s presence. Back then, since there was no electricity, oil was used to keep the flame lit. But when the Maccabees got to the temple there was only a tiny bit of oil to be found. The process for making oil took eight days and unfortunately, there was no overnight delivery back then. Somehow that tiny bit of oil, which should have only lasted for a day or so, lasted for eight days until the new oil was ready! So the eternal light never went out! That miracle is why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights and eat food fried in oil, like latkes and jelly donuts!
(Side note – some doubters of the oily miracle say the eight-day celebration was really based on the eight days of Sukkot – another Jewish holiday – and that the Jews were making up for lost time since they had missed the celebration earlier in the year due to the war. But hey, the idea of a miracle is way more fun.)
Download our Hanukkah Booklet for two fun skits (great for families or a group) that you will love. The booklet also includes the candle blessings and short readings – one for each night – to add inspiration and meaning to the holiday.
Items you will want to have on hand for your Hanukkah celebration:
Menorah: A Hanukkah menorah has nine branches (and is sometimes called a Hanukkiah). Some families light just one menorah, and some have one for each member of the family. Either way, we’re talking a lot of candles to last all eight nights (44 per menorah, to be exact). Candles are traditionally lit at nightfall, and, when possible, placed somewhere near a window so that the light is visible to all.
Gifts: The idea of eight presents for each member of your family, especially if you have kids, can feel a little daunting! Some families give one present on the first night and then treats for the remaining nights. Some families do the opposite and start with tchotchkes (we love this word; it’s pronounced chach-kies and means “trinkets”) and lead up to a bigger gift. Some families plan a special vacation together. As always, do what makes most sense for your family.
Fried Foods: Traditional Hanukkah fare includes latkes and jelly donuts. Don’t feel you need to shy away from french fries or onion rings or your other fried faves though.
Chocolate Coins/Gelt: Gelt is the Yiddish word for money. On Hanukkah, we’re supposed to give money to charity. So back in the day, before Venmo, people used to give their children coins to give away. Somehow that got translated to handing out those chocolate coins in the awesome ﬁshnet sacks. (Now we’re waiting for the next Hanukkah miracle, which will be a new way to get the foil off the gelt without embedding chocolate under our ﬁngernails.)
Dreidels: Have you ever played Dreidel? If not, give it a try. Google the rules. We’re warning you, though, Dreidel may be the dullest game ever, even with the gambling. It started when the ancient Jews were hiding in caves learning Torah. They would play Dreidel for a break. Some break! We’d almost rather study Torah. For the love of God, if you know a way to make Dreidel a more exciting game, let the world know. It is a good use for those aforementioned chocolate coins, though.
That’s it! Happy Hanukkah! Download our booklet for the blessings, skits & readings here!