Hanukkah Traditions Explained
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Hanukkah is an eight-day-long Jewish festival. Also called the Festival of Lights, it celebrates the victory of good over evil and is a happy occasion with many fun traditions. The date of the celebrations, determined by the Hebrew calendar, varies annually. This year, Hanukkah will be observed from December 18, 2022, to December 26, 2022.
Lighting the menorah
The most important Hanukkah tradition is lighting a nine-branched candle holder called a menorah. On the first night, two candles are lit. One for the first night of Hanukkah and the shamash (or "helper") candle used to ignite it. Each night after that, an additional candle is added until all nine are lit on the eighth day.
The tradition dates back over 2,000 years to when Greece's Antiochus IV Epiphanes ruled the Land of Israel. The king banned Judaism and forced the Jewish people to worship Greek deities. He also installed an altar to Zeus inside Jerusalem's Second Temple.
A successful uprising led by a Jewish priest and his five sons helped reclaim the temple. When worshippers entered, they found a small quantity of sacred oil — just enough to light a candle for a single day. To their surprise, the candle burned for eight consecutive days. This gave the Jewish people enough time to prepare a fresh batch of oil. Soon after, a festival was declared to commemorate the miracle oil, and Hanukkah was born.
Many traditional Hanukkah foods are deep-fried to honor the miracle oil that led to the start of the holiday. Among the most popular are potato pancakes called latkes and jelly donuts called sufganiyot. Beef brisket, matzo ball soup, and challah — a braided egg bread — are also enjoyed during the festival.
After dinner, it's time for games! The most popular one involves a dreidel. The spinning top has Hebrew lettering engraved on each of its four sides. Together, they form the acronym for "Nes Gadol Haya Sham." This is Hebrew for "a great miracle happened here."
The game is pretty simple. Players receive an equal number of game pieces, such as dried fruit or chocolate coins. They donate a game piece to a shared pot and then take turns spinning the dreidel. Depending on the side it lands on, the player either gives or receives game pieces from the pot.
The origin of the lively game is unclear. Some believe it dates back to the reign of King Antiochus IV. Prohibited from practicing Judaism in public, Jews would often read the Torah secretly. Upon seeing the Greek troops, they would hide the sacred texts and pretend to play with the dreidel. Others think the game has European origins.
Traditionally, children received gelt — a small amount of money or chocolate coins — during Hanukkah. But today, many families hand out more substantial gifts. Unlike Christmas, when the presents are given in a single day, Hanukkah gifting lasts eight days! It is no wonder the holiday is so popular with kids!
Resources: usatoday.com, Wikipedia.org, History.com
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