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Jewish Holiday: The Story, Meaning, and Traditions of Hanukkah

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Living in an area of mostly Christians, I have discovered that there may be some confusion about the significance of the Jewish holiday, Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah). Some non-Jews may view Hanukkah as a sort of "Jewish Christmas" because the date falls so close to the Christian holiday and Jewish children receive gifts over the week. But the celebration of  Hanukkah actually has less to do with the exchange of gifts and much more to do with commemorating the courage of a small group of Jewish rebels who fought the Hellenic army to reclaim the Temple in Jerusalem.

The True Story of Hanukkah

When Alexander the Great conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, he allowed the inhabitants to observe their own religions as long as they did not rebel against the  Hellenic laws. More than a century later, Antiochus IV controlled the region. He oppressed the Jews, specifically, by placing a Hellenistic priest in the temple and massacring anyone who practiced Judaism. He further desecrated the holy Temple in Jerusalem by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar as a tribute to Zeus, the Greek God.

Two small groups joined together and revolted against the forced assimilation and oppression by Antiochus IV: a nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his sons (including Judah Maccabee who would later reclaim the Temple), and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim. Despite their small numbers, the Jews defeated their oppressors and rededicated the Temple.

Once there, the group found scarce pure oil left in the Temple to light the Menorah (a nine fingered candelabrum) which was supposed to burn throughout the night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day. Miraculously, the flames burned for eight days: the amount of time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil. To commemorate the group's courage and the subsequent miracle of the oil, an eight-day festival was declared known as "Hanukkah" meaning "to dedicate" in the Hebrew language.

Hanukkah Traditions 

Hanukkah is sometimes called the Festival of Lights because it's observed by lighting the candles on a Menorah: an additional one each night, progressing to eight on the final evening. Most Menorahs consist of eight branches with an extra arm called the shamash or "attendant" which is used to light all of the other Hanukkah candles. Other more secular traditions include eating jelly donuts and fried potato pancakes to celebrate the importance of oil.

Jewish children may also play a betting game using a top called "a dreidel" and chocolate gold coins. The origin of the game is from the time of Antiochus' oppression when Jews would conceal their studies by playing gambling games with a top (a legal activity) whenever they spied a Greek official. Finally, small gifts may be given to children during Hanukkah but are rarely exchanged among adults.

Overall, the true purpose of the holiday is actually not based in religion. It is a festival reminding the Jewish people of our forefathers' courage and the ultimate triumph of rededicating the Temple. Regardless of our numbers, Hanukkah signifies the importance of possessing the strength to stand up for what we believe is right even if others disagree or work to oppress us.

 Do you celebrate Hanukkah? What are your special Hanukkah traditions?

Renee Radbill Keats has been blogging since 2003. Recently, Renee was selected to be one of  twelve Oprah Winfrey Lifeclass bloggers on the OWN Network.  You can find Renee's musings on  A Windy City Momma, where she writes about her strange parental experiences, the decision to learn Hebrew and become a Bat Mitzvah as an adult and her ongoing adjustment to living in Chicago despite the fact that she has resided there for more than a decade.

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5 Responses to “Jewish Holiday: The Story, Meaning, and Traditions of Hanukkah”

  1. Thank you for sharing this explaination. We just attended a live nativity this week and my 6-yr-old son asked me what Hanukkah was during the show. I told him I’d explain later but truthfully I was planning to look it up online so I could learn more about it myself before explaining it to him. I got online now and saw this post in my FB feed so it was perfect timing. I’m glad I can explain it to my children better now. Thanks!

  2. Lovely post – informative without being patronizing!

    I grew up in a very Christian area and didn’t meet (to my knowledge) a Jewish person until I was 17 – funnily enough, in the Chicago suburbs while visiting a friend who was half-Jewish.

    Judaism is such a beautiful religion, full of precious rituals full of meaning. Renee, I think you could write a great book on the subject! I’ve read quite a few, but they all assume a basic starting point of knowledge or Biblical historical knowledge that is quite advanced for the ‘average reader’. I’d love to read it before my next trip to Jerusalem, my favorite place on the planet…so can’t wait to see you write more posts on the topic!

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