With the holiday season here it is about that time to pull out the Christmas lights and stock up on some new Christmas tree ornaments. Although a majority of you may just be getting started, some of us have already completed our holiday gift shopping and giving as well. This year Hanukkah, fell on Thanksgiving, leaving several students excited that they would be home to celebrate more than one holiday.
Whether you prefer Hanukkah, Chanukah, Chanukkah (yes it can be spelled all of these ways) or the festival of lights, this holiday is still the celebration of light. The word itself means, “to dedicate, ” signifying the Jews reclamation of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was under Greek rule when a group of Jews banded together to regain possession of their Holy Land’s Temple. These rebels came to be known as the Maccabees. Once back in possession of the Holy Temple, in keeping with tradition, they went to light the Menorah, but the Greeks only left behind enough olive oil (yes, olive oil) to burn the light for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days. This would forever be celebrated with the holiday Hanukkah that lasts for eight days and eight nights to commemorate the Maccabees and rejoice in light.
This celebration of light has developed into an annual holiday complete with family gathering, games and presents. Unlike its wintertime counterpart, Christmas, exchanging gifts was not originally a part of the holiday. However, eight days of gift giving has become custom that I, nor anyone else who celebrates the holiday, complains about. However, there does exist a tradition of giving children edible coins called gelt. These gold wrapped chocolates are used in a gambling game in which the dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, decides your chocolate coma fate.
Gelt is not the only traditional food consumed on this holiday. Foods fried in oil, a symbolic representation of the miraculous oil that lasted for the Menorah, are also devoured. Latkes, a Yiddish word for potato pancakes, are sure to be found on almost every Hanukkah feast display along with the usual Matzo ball soup, roasted turkey, and Challah flavored with cinnamon, raisin, chocolate chips, or just plain. Jelly donuts, also fried in oil, are an anticipated way to end the night and satisfy your sweet tooth. This is not to say that there is a Hanukkah feast all eight nights—my family usually sticks to one night of feasting—but there is always plenty of gelt left over to last until next year’s celebration.
While there is no Christmas tree, the menorah serves as an equally colorful and awe-inspiring centerpiece. This special candleholder that has eight spaces all aligned to hold a lit candle for each night of Hanukkah. There is one other space that holds the extra “Shamash” candle that is used to light all the other candles. It is usually raised higher than the other eight spaces, creating nine spaces in total. Menorahs can be extraordinarily ornate or streamlined and modern. The candles themselves are offered in several colors and designs, adding even more pizzazz to the display.
As for the actual lighting ceremony, on the first night one candle is placed in the Menorah and the Shamash is lit while saying the prayer and lighting the first candle. The second night, there are two candles placed in the Menorah and both are lit with the Shamash. This practice continues for the next six nights with the Menorah being lit usually around sunset each night.
Just like Christmas, and most other holidays for that matter, Hanukkah is a time of togetherness, spent surrounded by loved ones and family members, and food of course. It is a time when we are reminded to appreciate the little things in life, in this case light provided by fire, and appreciate those who have protected what Jews stand for.