18 December marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah this year.
What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, is an eight-day Jewish celebration which begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar and usually falls in November or December.
A big misconception about Hanukkah is that it is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. However, Hanukkah (or Chanukah) actually “commemorates the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where according to legend Jews had risen up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt” (History.com editors, 2021).
The Story of Hanukkah
One of the most important traditions at Hanukkah is lighting the nine-branched menorah, also known as Hanukiah in Hebrew. “On each of the holiday’s eight nights, another candle is added to the menorah after sundown; the ninth candle, called the shamash (“helper”), is used to light the others” (History.com editors, 2021). Blessings are typically recited during this ritual and the menorah is displayed prominently in a window as a reminder to others of the miracle that inspired the holiday.
Children also receive presents and gifts of money, known as Hanukkah gelt, which is often distributed in the form of chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.
A game with a four-sided top called a dreidel is also played during Hannukah. A dreidel has a Hebrew letter on each side of the top, “which forms the initials of the words in the phrase nes gadol haya sham, meaning “a great miracle happened there” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022). To play the dreidel game, players each start with several pieces of gelt and take turns spinning the top. Depending on which letter the dreidel lands on, players have to give or take gelt from the center “pot.” The game ends when one player wins all of the gelt (Nykiel, 2022).
Foods eaten at Hanukkah
5 traditional foods eaten during Hanukkah:
- Latkes are fried potato pancakes eaten to remember the oil miracle in the Hanukkah story. There are many latke variations, including sweet potato, zucchini and cheese and red pepper. Applesauce and sour cream are the most popular latke toppings. They can be playfully divisive—ask any Jewish person in your life which they prefer, and they’ll likely have strong opinions.
- Sufganiyot – These fried jelly doughnuts are another reminder of the Hanukkah oil miracle.
- Hanukkah cookies may not be as traditional as latkes or sufganiot, but they’re a popular way to celebrate the holiday. Common cookie shapes for Hanukkah include dreidels, menorahs and stars of David.
- Brisket is a popular entree in many Jewish households for holidays including Hanukkah, but also for Rosh Hashanah and Passover.
- Kugel is a traditional Jewish noodle casserole dish that can either be sweet or savory, depending on who’s making it. Sweet versions often include cottage cheese, eggs, sugar, cinnamon and sometimes raisins. Savory versions may include garlic, onions and other vegetables. (Nykiel, 2022)