SUNSET SATURDAY, DECEMBER 8: Fry up latkes and try your luck with a few games with a dreidel—it’s Hanukkah! Jews far and wide light menorahs in their windows and proclaim the “miracle of the oil,” in memory of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees more than two millennia ago.
Hanukkah (also spelled “Chanukah”) lasts eight nights and days, during which additional branches of the menorah are lit. In most Jewish homes, candles traditionally burn for at least 30 minutes after dark. While the candles burn, family members exchange stories, sing songs and discuss Jewish history. (For a digital experience, watch “Hanukkah: Rock of Ages,” eight songs that tell the story of Hanukkah at Aish.com.)
The story of Hanukkah begins with Alexander the Great, a leader who had conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine—but nonetheless allowed the people living there to continue practicing their own religious customs. Alexander’s successor, Antiochus IV, began oppressing Jews during his reign, defacing their sacred spaces and generally trying to remold traditional Judaism into a more Greek-like culture. (Wikipedia has details.) Finally, traditional Jews had had enough: a revolt arose and the Maccabees eventually reclaimed the Temple. In hopes of rededicating the Temple, the Jews needed oil; however, there was little “pure” oil left, and only enough to light the Temple menorah for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight nights—the length of time necessary to prepare fresh oil.
DECEMBER DILEMMA: A COLLISION OF TRADITIONS
Although Hanukkah is widely known across the U.S., the festival hardly makes a mark on the Jewish calendar. It only appears in the book of Maccabees and not in the Torah itself. Nevertheless, its close proximity to Christmas has increased its popularity exponentially. Now, blue-and-white Hanukkah decorations flood American store shelves beside red-and-green Christmas decorations. Jewish leaders teaching about Hanukkah today say the increased awareness isn’t all bad. The holiday, after all, is about the heroic struggle for the religious freedom of a minority within the scope of of a powerful empire—a perennial challenge for Jews and other minority groups around the world today. Celebrating religious freedom is always a good deed, they argue.
Many Jewish families complain about the mingling of Hanukkah and Christmas traditions. They argue: Don’t try to celebrate both in one home; that’s confusing to children, even if part of one’s family is Christian. Some blended families do make their own adaptations, though. One common adaptation in Jewish homes is marking Hanukkah with major year-end gift giving for children, recognizing that the kids’ Christian friends will get a year-end haul on December 25.
Rabbi Jason Miller wrote an overview of the annual “December Dilemma” in the Huffington Post. One issue Rabbi Miller included is the practice of stringing electric, outdoor, Hanukkah lights like Christian neighbors’ Christmas lights. Miller wrote, in part: We should also be grateful that we live in a country and at a time when we are able to freely publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. I really don’t see the problem if some families choose to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah by decorating their homes with lights for a couple weeks in the winter. They should of course remember to put their lit Hanukkah candles in the window too.
Adhering more closely to Jewish tradition, families gather to enjoy foods fried in oil, play simple games involving a spin of the four-sided dreidel, nibble on chocolate gelt and sing Hanukkah songs. (Access recipes, stories, a Menorah Lighting Guide and more at Chabad.org.) The letters on a dreidel form an acronym for the Hebrew words, “A great miracle happened there,” referring to the story of the miraculous oil. (Check out a photo gallery, plus interactive videos, at History.com.)
CELEBRATE THE HOLIDAY WITH READING: Our annual ReadTheSpirit Best Holiday Books guide includes several perfect-for-Hanukkah gift ideas, including a children’s picture book, a new graphic novel about Jews in the American Southwest—plus a yummy-and-thought-provoking book about chocolate from a Jewish perspective.
HANUKKAH’S ENDURING LESSONS FOR THE WORLD: The authors of a new book on reviving Jewish spiritual life offer an inspiring holiday column, 5 Gifts to Unwrap at Hanukkah.
NEW TASTES OF HANUKKAH
Looking to incorporate the latest trends in Jewish cooking into your Hanukkah spread? Turn to Israeli vegetables and Ashkenazi traditions, top chefs advise, and take your menu to a new level! Swiss chard fritters with beet spread and celery root-and-parsnip latkes exemplify the offerings of two fresh cookbooks recently featured in the New York Times: “The Mile End Cookbook,” by Clarkson Potter, and “Jerusalem,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Not quite so brave? Try the more traditional twists on Hanukkah dishes at Taste of Home, Food Network and AllRecipes. Kids can craft the table decorations with help from Creative Jewish Mom.