Festival of Lights, Hanukkah

Festival of Lights.

Did you ever want to know more about the eight-day celebration known as Hanukkah? If you ever wondered about the holiday your child may have studied at school, here are some answers to questions you may have asked:

1. What’s the deal with the spelling (or lack thereof?)

Chanukah or Hanukkah is a Hebrew word. That means the word is spelled with letters that are not in English. Some people have preferred spellings, but there is no correct spelling. I like to spell it as many ways as I can in a single document, both as a personal challenge and because I have a better chance of finding it with a search if I cover my bases. Some people say any spelling is correct as long as it has eight letters to represent the eight nights.

2. Why does it change dates?

Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th day of the month of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar. Because the Hebrew calendar measures lunar months, the date of Hanukkah changes from year to year.

3. Why are we eating this time?

Back when Greece ruled Israel, there was “a bad king” named Antiochus. He told Jewish people that they had to eat pigs. Pigs are not-kosher, meaning it’s against traditional Jewish law to eat them. There are a lot of things people who keep kosher are not supposed to eat, but for whatever reason, even people who don’t keep kosher sometimes draw the line at pig.

Judah Maccabee and the Maccabees fought and fought the Greeks. The Greeks destroyed the Jewish temple and ruined all the holy oil. Obviously, the Jews lived. But they could only find one tiny bit of oil to last one day. Miraculously the oil lasted for 8 days, long enough to make new oil and to bring about an eight-night long festival of lights.

Or, that’s one version at any rate.

4. What are we eating this time?

Lots of stuff with oil. Because the oil lasted for eight days.

The two most well-known Chanukah foods are potato latkes and sufganiot.

Latkes are what many people call potato pancakes. There’s not a big difference between a latke and a potato pancake, except that a truly traditional latke has chicken fat in it. Sufganiot is basically a jelly donut.

5. Why does my kid always come home from school singing about a dreidel?

There are plenty of Hanukkah songs. Tons of them. But for whatever reason, every public school I’ve ever taught in or had a child in seems to only know that one song about the dreidel.

Dreidel is a Hanukkah game involving a spinning top and what basically amounts to gambling for candy.

Each letter on the dreidel is part of the acronym for “A Great Miracle Happened There”. The game is often played with gelt (chocolate coins).

6. What about presents?

My understanding is that presents are only a big deal in places where Hanukkah “competes” for attention with Christmas. Some families do other special activities each night instead of presents. A friend and former coworker of mine plays dreidel with a different type of candy each night.

7. What’s that menorah thing?

Most people have probably at least seen a menorah. It holds eight candles, one for each night and also a shamash, or helper candle. On the first night, one candle plus the shamash is lit. The second night, two candles, and so on. This is done in celebration of the temple oil having lasted eight days.

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