Jewish: Celebrate light and freedom at Hanukkah

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 1: Tonight—and for a total of 8 nights—Jewish households light candles for Hanukkah. It’s a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, but it shines for Jewish families as a spiritual antidote to the overwhelming presence of Christmas. Often, this cultural challenge for Jewish parents is called “the December Dilemma.”

The Jewish Exponent, the 123-year-old Jewish newspaper in the Philadelphia area, published an editorial about that annual “dilemma” this year, explaining: The December dilemma is now often defined by the quandary faced by interfaith families over how to celebrate two traditions. But for generations past, the term alluded to the inherent tensions faced by Jewish families striving to preserve their winter celebration as a secondary, albeit special, time without trying to compete with Christmas.


Several inspiring themes are part of this festival, including the power of light itself at this ever-darker time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes about that “ordinary miracle” in his newest book, “I’m God; You’re Not.”


Another major theme of Hanukkah is religious freedom. As the traditional story is retold in most Jewish families, a wicked ruler nearly 2,200 years ago was determined to force Jews to leave their ancient traditions behind in favor of practices drawn from Greek culture. Instead, a rebel force known as the Maccabees heroically defeated these rulers and restored the traditional rituals in the Jerusalem temple. (Note for Christian readers: Brief references to the ancient eight-day festival appear in Catholic Bibles that include Maccabees, but Maccabees are not included in Protestant Bibles.)

Most Jewish families also retell a miraculous story about the small amount of sacred oil that was left in the rededicated temple—a tiny amount of oil that nevertheless managed to keep the temple’s light going for eight days. This story of the oil actually appears somewhat later in Jewish history. (Note to Catholics flipping through your Bibles: Because the story of the oil came later, you won’t find it mentioned in your account of the Maccabees.)


Hanukkah often is described as a home-based festival—and that’s certainly true. Even non-Jewish children enjoy songs about the “dreidel,” the spinning top associated with Hanukkah in most Jewish homes. Jewish kids also enjoy freshly made potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts, flavorful treats fried in oil as a reminder of the oil in the traditional holiday story.

Around the world each year, however, there are many large-scale, community-wide celebrations, including displays of giant outdoor Hanukkah lights. In Florida this year, one Jewish congregation is hosting a locally produced rock musical telling the story of Hanukkah to both young and old, according to the St. Petersburg Times. The Maccabees have maintained their heroic aura into modern times and their name often is associated with athletic competitions. The coolest Hanukkah web link we’ve discovered so far this year, though, is a special page the website set up to describe several Hanukkah “world’s records.” (Warning: Don’t read the article on a full stomach, though! The description of a huge pyramid made of fried jelly doughnuts may give you world-record indigestion!)

We welcome your notes about the holidays. Hanukkah continues for more than a week. Email us with additional interesting news or links you’ve spotted this year at [email protected]

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