Hanukkah 101: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

hanukkah

What is it?

Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish holiday that usually falls in December. (The dates move around because it’s based on the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, so though it’s always on the 25th of Kislev, that’s a different day each year in the Gregorian/solar calendar.) This year, Hanukkah begins on the evening of Sunday, December 6.

The holiday tells the story of the Jewish people in the second century B.C.E. The Syrian Greeks came along and turned the holy temple in Jerusalem into a pagan shrine. Eventually, the Jews fought back, led by Judah Maccabee, and they were able to recapture the temple. The legend tells that when the Jews were cleaning up the temple to rededicate it, they could only find one small cask of oil for their menorah (lamp) that should’ve only lasted for one day. But it lasted for eight whole days! There were two great miracles of Hanukkah — first, that the small band of Maccabees could overcome the Greek army, and second, that the little bit of oil lasted for eight days.

How do you celebrate it?

Every night for eight nights, Jewish people light the menorah, or hanukkiah, a nine-stemmed candelabra. They say a few blessings, thanking God for the miracle of the holiday, for keeping us safe, and for the special ceremony of lighting the candles. Gifts are often exchanged, especially chocolate gelt (coins). I like to give my kids one small present each night; it gives them something really fun to look forward to.

Traditionally, Jews eat foods fried in oil, like jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot) and potato pancakes (latkes). My very favorite latke recipe is found here — and it’s amazing because you don’t have to stand over a hot stove for hours but you still get delicious oven-fried latkes!

Kids (of all ages!) often play a game called dreidel. A dreidel is a four-sided top with Hebrew letters written on it. Based on which side it lands on, you either get to take some gelt (coins) from the pot or put some in. Rules can be found here, and check out some gorgeous dreidels here.

dreidel - Boston Moms Blog

What else should we know?

If you’re curious to learn more about Hanukkah, our friends over at Kveller.com have some great resources for you. But here are my top five:

  1. Best book: “Maccabee! The Story of Hanukkah” is a great read — its rhyming rhythm is fun for kids and it really tells all the parts of the Hanukkah story in an accessible way. It’s my go-to book to bring to school when I’m asked to teach what Hanukkah is all about.
  2. Best song: The “Dreidel Song” is classic Hanukkah, but I really love Chanukah Bamba, by Shira Kline. A play on La Bamba, this song is catchy and super fun to sing along to. (More of my favorites can be found here.)
  3. Best video: Michelle Citrin made a great video a few years ago about which way to light the Hanukkah candles, called Pass the Candle. It’s a really cool concept.
  4. Best edible craft: Tori Avey has a fabulous website, which I love first and foremost for her explanations — she’s great at ensuring that everyone understands what she’s talking about. And she wrote up one of my favorite Hanukkah crafts, the edible dreidel. When I make them they’re not as beautiful as hers, but they still taste delicious! It’s super fun to do with your kids.
  5. Best non-edible craft: I love this simple watercolor dreidel garland. It’s a great way to decorate for Hanukkah, from fantastic crafter CreativeJewishMom.

Chag sameach — a happy Hanukkah!