Answers to Eight Essential Hannukah Questions

“How do you celebrate Hannukah?”

“What’s Hannukah?”

“Hannukah is basically Jewish Christmas, right?”

Every holiday season, these questions are directed at me. And every holiday season, I am shocked by how little people know about Hannukah. I asked Dan, who never had a Jewish friend before he met me, what he knew about Hannukah PP (pre-Pam).

“That it was eight days?”

“That’s it?”

“I can’t think of anything else.”

“How did you know it was eight days long?”

“That Adam Sandler song.”

My husband is an educated person. He reads more than almost anyone I know. His knowledge of facts and trivia is off the chain. And if we had never met, his knowledge of Hannukah would probably still be informed by the Adam Sandler song and the Adam Sandler song alone. How can I reasonably expect much more of the average person?

In honor of the eight nights of Hannukah, I have answered eight important Hannukah questions. I’m not a rabbi, but I grew up going to a Jewish day school (eg parochial school) and Jewish summer camps, and I have researched everything I wasn’t 100% sure of.

1) How do you spell Hannukah?
Hannukah is a holiday much loved by poor spellers, as there is practically no way to misspell it. Because it’s a Hebrew word transliterated into English, there are multiple correct spellings, including:

2) What is Hannukah?
In 168 BCE, the Jewish temple was seized by the Syrian Greek army. They Syrian-Greeks then attempted to force all of the Jews to worship their gods, and made observing Judaism a crime punishable by death. The Jews formed a rebel army, the Macabees, who, against all odds, fought the Syrian Greeks and won.

The Jews then sought to reclaim their temple, which they felt had been defiled, as worship of other gods had taken place there. In order to purify the temple, the Jews needed to burn ritual oil in the temple’s menorah (a nine-pronged candelabra) for eight days. There was however, only one drop of oil available. Miraculously, this one drop lasted eight days. I believe the modern equivalent would be, if say, a single cup of coffee sustained a person such as myself, for an entire month.

The word Hannuah means “dedication.” Each year at Hannukah, Jews celebrate the re-dedication of the temple, and the miracle of that one little drop of oil that made it possible. Yes, Hannukah is also about warring nations and murder too, and this is why I am actually ideologically opposed to religion, but ideas and practice are two different things, and that is certainly a blog post for another time.

3) How is Hannukah celebrated?
– It starts on the 25th day of Kislev and lasts eight days. Because Jewish  holidays follow the lunar calendar, the date varies from year to year, falling anywhere from late November to late December. This year, the first night of Hannukah is December 16th. Each night of Hannukah, you light one candle on the menorah for each night. The menorah is that nine pronged candelabra I mentioned before.

menorah photo

Photo by Gaia43. Note, the main candle in the middle, and the four little ones on the left, indicate that its the fourth night of Hannukah. 









– You play dreidel. That’s the spinning top with Hebrew letters on it. I like to play with M&M’s, but you could play for money, or whatever you want. Generally, dreidels are for children.

-You give the children (and adults) Hannukah gelt. Gelt is disc-shaped pieces of milk chocolate, wrapped up in gold, silver, or shiny blue foil, and bundled up in a netted baggie, packaged to look like coins. Unless you live in a place where there’s no synogague within a 50 mile radius, you’ve probably seen them at the supermarket at this time of year.

-You sing Hannukah songs. This typically happens in your home, after you’ve lit the menorah. Children will sing Hannukah songs at religious school. I took the girls to a Hannukah music class desgined for the 0-5 set that was offered in Boulder last week.

-You give gifts. This is a modern tradition that has nothing to do with the holiday itself and everything do with Jews living in the diaspora  (eg in communities with non-Jews), where their gentile counterparts traditionally receive Christmas presents. To what extent gifts are emphasized at Hannukah is personal and varies from family to family. We go the moderate route. Of course, our moderate would be lavish to some and meager to others.

-You do a bar crawl that includes eight bars. This is an ancient tradition. Actually, it’s not. It’s just a fun event that a good friend of mine organizes every year.

4) So Hannukah is basically Christmas, only for Jewish people?
No!!!! Hannukah is about as minor of a Jewish holiday as they come. If it weren’t for Christmas being at the same time of year, no one would notice Hannukah. The holiest day of the year for Jews is Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.

5) So part of Hannukah is stringing up lights and placing a Hannukah bush in the living room?
Some Jewish people incorporate festive decor into their celebration of Hannukah. But like the exchanging of gifts, the lights and the bush are not exactly steeped in Jewish tradition.

6) You get a boat load of sick presents, considering Hannukah lasts eight days, right?
The degree to which each individual or family turns Hannukah into a consumerist bonanza is totally personal and it varies from family to family.

7) What do Jewish people do on Christmas?
Typically, Jewish people go out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve and see a matinee on Christmas day. Then again, I don’t have any idea what a “typical” modern family, Jewish or otherwise, looks like in 2014, if there even is such a thing anymore.

Today, about a third of Jewish people (such as myself) are married to non-Jews. When Dan and I travel back to visit my family at Christmas, we do the Chinese food and movie thing. If we stay local, we celebrate Christmas with his parents, who not only celebrate Christmas, but are also very active in their church. They have been nothing but supportive and curious with regard to all things Jewish, including raising their granddaughters as Jews. I am very lucky to have this situation. We have Christmas Eve dinner them, we sleep over, and then we hang out and have a nice breakfast, and open a few gifts under their tree. I haven’t accompanied them to church since before Sweet Pea was born, but perhaps when the kids are old enough to sit through a church service, we will, out of respect for Grandma and Grandpa. I haven’t really thought that far ahead.

8) So if you don’t celebrate Christmas, does that mean you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, either?
What? No! Christmas is a Christian holiday, which is why Jews do not celebrate it. Thanksgiving is a national holiday, therefore American Jews do celebrate it. I know it’s confusing because both holidays involve amazing sales, Christmas music, mall traffic, eating stupid amounts of food, going to Grandma’s house, and the mailman not coming, but actually the two holidays have nothing to do with each other.

I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions about what Hannukah is (or isn’t).

Answers to Eight Essential Hannukah (1)


9 thoughts on “Answers to Eight Essential Hannukah Questions

  1. Rachel Cousin Kowitz says:

    Laney asked what I thought was an amazing question about Hanukkah today( and I thought I had heard them all growing up in rural PA) …” Why are their lots of Christmas movies but no Hanukkah movies???”
    I would love a good Hanukkah movie…I think we should work on this:))….maybe see if adam sandler is avaliable?!! It would be a hit!!

    • Pam says:

      YES! I would like to see Ben Stiller in it too. But to answer the question… I guess it’s because there is no drama in Hannukah… It’s not like Passover or Yom Kippur where the WHOLE family gets together. I could see a plotline revolving around someone who HAS to apologize to someone else between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper. and every possible obstacle is thrown up in their path, but Hannukah.. where is the drama? You ate too many latkes? You lost all your M&M’s in a game of dreidel? You didn’t buy the presents in time… but then you had seven more nights to still buy presents? I don’t know…

      • Shoshana Mendelson says:

        Actually, there are Hannukah movies, but they are usually marketed within the religious Jewish communities. A movie that does not fit that mold, though, would be “The Hebrew Hammer”. Not so appropriate for kids.

  2. Shoshana Mendelson says:

    The menorah in the Temple actually had seven branches. The channukiah (candelabra lit on Hannukah) has nine.

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