By lighting the candle on a hanukkiah or menorah, Jewish families worldwide will memorialize the first night of Hanukkah at sundown on 10th December 2020. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights means “Dedication” in Hebrew, is an eight-day celebration observed annually on the 25th day of Kislev — the Jewish calendar’s ninth month. Sometimes the date varies between late November and December.
According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most central texts, the popular celebration dates back over 2,000 years, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes reigned over Judea or the Land of Israel. The Greek king, who ruled from 175 BC to 164 BC, banned Judaism and ordered the Jewish people to worship Greek deities instead. To force them to comply, his soldiers killed thousands of Jews. They also violated the Second Temple, the central Jewish place of worship, by installing an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs (considered non-kosher, or not fit to eat in the Jewish culture) inside the sacred structure.
To fight against the oppression, a Jewish priest named Mattathias and his five sons orchestrated a successful rebellion against the Greek king. When Mattathias was killed, his eldest son, Judah Maccabee, took his place and, following a two-year struggle, managed to reclaim the holy site. According to the legend, when worshippers entered the temple, they found a small quantity of oil — enough to light the menorah for a single day. To their surprise, the candles burned for eight consecutive days, providing residents enough time to prepare a fresh batch of kosher oil. Soon after, an eight-day festival was declared to commemorate the miracle oil, and Hanukkah, or Chanukah as it is also called, was born.
Though many fun traditions have been added since the menorah’s lighting remains the centerpiece of the celebrations. Eight candles are lit one at a time to mark each day of the festival. A ninth candle, or shamash (helper), which sits at a slightly higher position in the candelabrum’s center, is used to light up the others. Once the ritual and accompanying prayers are completed, families settle down for a delicious feast. To honor the oil’s significance to the holiday, many Hanukkah dishes are deep-fried. Among the most popular are latkes — fried potato pancakes — and jelly-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot.
After dinner, it’s time for games! The most popular one involves using a dreidel, a spinning top with a different letter etched on each of its four sides, to form the acronym for “Nes Gadol Haya Sham.” Hebrew for “a great miracle happened here,” it refers to the miracle of the oil lasting eight days in ancient Israel. Each player starts with an equal number of game pieces, such as dried fruit or chocolate coins called gelt. After placing a game piece in a shared pot, the player spins the dreidel. Depending on the side it lands on, participants can lose a game piece to the mutual bowl or hit the jackpot and win the entire loot.
The fun festival is particularly popular with kids who often receive a gift, or two, for each of the eight days!