Although it does often fall around the same time of year, Hanukkah is not just the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. This yearly celebration (Hanukkah will take place on November 28 to December 6 in 2021) is actually a commemoration of a religiously significant event—namely, a successful revolt led by the Maccabees (i.e., the heroes of Hanukkah) against their Syrian-Greek oppressors, and the subsequent rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The story goes that in the aftermath of the revolt, the desecrated temple had only enough oil for one ritual nightly lighting of the menorah. However, by a miracle from God, that small amount of oil was able to last for eight full days, giving the Jewish worshippers enough time to procure more. Today, Hanukkah (also known as the Festival of Lights) is a happy occasion when families and friends gather together to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness by lighting candles for eight nights and enjoying some of the festive Hanukkah traditions described below.
1. Lighting the Menorah
The most important of all the Hanukkah traditions is the lighting of the menorah, a nine-branched candelabra that represents the lamp (and the miracle) from the Hanukkah story told in the Talmud, a book of Jewish religious teachings. For the eight nights of Hanukkah, families come together and light a new candle of the menorah, from left to right, while saying a blessing. After a candle is lit, families often place the menorah in a window where it will fill the room with light, whilst being visible to passersby. Fun fact: Although there are only eight nights of Hanukkah, there are nine branches on a menorah because the one at the center is intended to hold the shamash, a candle used to light the others. Also, if you’re wondering where oil factors into all this, we can explain that, too. While oil was once used in the wells of the menorah, the ritual changed with the times and eventually candles took the place of oil.
2. Playing Dreidel
A dreidel is a tiny spinning top, inscribed with Hebrew letters on its four sides, and it’s used to play the popular Hanukkah game by the same name. Dreidel, originally a German gambling game that was adapted by the Jewish people, begins with each player contributing a portion of their stash of gelt, coins or other small objects into a central pot. The pot can then be won depending on how the dreidel falls on any given turn; the four Hebrew letters indicate whether a player must take nothing, take everything, take half or put one in. This lively game is often played over the holiday by children and adults alike.
3. Eating Fried Food
Oil may no longer be the source of light at Hanukkah, but it still has a place at the table over the holiday. Foods fried in oil—like potato latkes and jelly donuts (sufganiyot)—are a main feature of the festivities and a nod to the Hanukkah miracle being celebrated.
4. Hanukkah Gelt
Gelt, the yiddish word for ‘money,’ refers to the foil-wrapped chocolate coins that are commonly exchanged over Hanukkah. This tasty currency is typically given as gifts and then used to play dreidel for winnings that are extra sweet.
5. Giving Gifts
Historically, gelt was the only gift given at Hanukkah—either in the form of real coins, or the chocolate ones described above. That said, this tradition has evolved—particularly among American Jews—in response to the lavish consumerism of the competing Christian holiday. (Yep, we’re talking about Christmas.) As such, some families have chosen to include nightly gift exchanges in their Hanukkah celebrations, while others compromise and give cash to stay more in keeping with the authentic holiday tradition.
6. Hanukkah Music
Hanukkah is a joyous holiday in the Jewish tradition with a focus on togetherness, and music plays a significant part here. Aside from Ma’oz Tzur, a song typically sung after the nightly lighting of the candles, the celebration also includes a festive playlist of Hanukkah hits, including more traditional Hebrew folk songs such as “S'vivon sov sov sov,” as well as modern hits like Debbie Friedman’s ode to latkes.