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All about Hanukkah — the 8 night Jewish festival of lights

 

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker licensed CC BY 2.0 

It’s time for the festival of lights! Hey — wait, didn’t we already have a festival of light last month with Diwali?

Well, yes, but that was an entirely different festival, and anyway it’s winter, you really need more light this time of year. So settle in, grab your candles and get ready to find out more about the eight crazy nights of the Jewish festival called Hanukkah.


What is it?

Hanukkah oil lamps

Photo by Avital Pinnick licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

You might see other spellings like Chanukah, Hanuka or Chanukkah – we’re going with Hanukkah (say “HA-ne-kaa”) – but it’s okay, it’s all the same thing. The word means “dedication” in Hebrew.

The history of Hanukkah goes back over 2,000 years. Back in 139 BCE, the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem to liberate it. In the Temple, they built a new altar and made a new menorah. When they wanted to light it, they found they only had enough oil to light it for one day. But that lamp kept burning for eight nights and was considered a miracle.

Since then a festival of lights has been celebrated every year to remember the occasion. Candles are lit for eight nights, and families eat foods cooked with oil and exchange presents.


What is a menorah?

Kid lighting a menorah

Photo by Bob Rosenberg  licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

The Hanukkah candlestick holder that has been used since the time of the temple is called a menorah (say “meh-NO-rah”). It has spots for nine candles – one for each night of Hanukkah and the extra candle, called the Shamash, is used to light all of the others.

Today, the menorah is also called by a modern name — hanukkiah (say “ha-NEW-key-ah”). It’s okay to use the word menorah though as most people know it better.


When is it?

The celebration moves around each year but almost always falls in the month of December. This year’s celebrations start at sunset on December 10 and finish up on the night of December 18.


How is it celebrated?

This year's celebrations might be a little different due to Covid and social distancing. Families may connect through social media and temple services may be online to ensure social distancing. Let's look at how Hanukkah is traditionally celebrated.
 

Latkes

Photo by Alice licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Each night at sundown, family and friends gather to light another candle on the hanukkiah. Songs and prayers are often said, and then it’s time to eat! To celebrate the history of the holiday many traditional dishes are cooked using lots of oil. One of the most popular Hanukkah foods is the latke (say “LOT-kuh”). Latkes are potato pancakes, fried and then served with applesauce or sour cream. Jelly doughnuts are a popular dessert.

Hanukkah’s not really about presents — except everybody really likes presents. The tradition is to give coins or even bills, called Hanukkah Gelt. There's even chocolate Hanukkah Gelt to give to children if families don't want to give them money as gifts.


What’s the dreidel game?

Dreidels

Photo by Adiel Io on Wikimedia licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 

A game that kids play a lot at Hanukkah parties uses a dreidel (say “DRAY-dull”), or sevivon (say “seh-vee-VON”). The dreidel is a four-sided top with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet on each side. Everyone is given gelt, which can be real coins or gold-wrapped chocolate coins, or nuts to bet with and depending on what side the dreidel lands on they win or lose the pot.

There’s even a song you can sing about the dreidel. Many people know the first verse and it goes like this:

“I have a little dreidel. I made it out of clay.
And when it’s dry and ready, oh dreidel I shall play.
Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay.
And when you’re dry and ready, oh dreidel we shall play.”


Want to make your own dreidel? We've got a downloadable dreidel you can cut out of paper to play the dreidel game.