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How Is Hanukkah Celebrated? Traditions and Customs

Celebrating a holiday is always fun. But what if that holiday lasted eight days and nights? Sounds like eight times the fun, no?

Well, in a way, yes. But Hanukkah, the eight-day long Jewish celebration that usually takes place in November or December, and that is also known as the “Festival of Lights,” is a relatively calm affair. Its joy derives from the centuries-old story and the values it promotes: being thankful and spending time with family.

Here’s everything you need to know about hanukkah celebration traditions:

The Story of Hanukkah

Like most things in Jewish history, the story of Hanukkah goes back a long way. However, if you look through the Torah, the Jewish religious text, you won’t see any mention of Hanukkah. This is because while the holiday dates back to more than 2,000 years ago, the events that inspired it took place after the Torah was written. 

These events occurred in around 200 BC when Judea, the ancient name for the land of Israel, was controlled by the Seleucid Empire, an offshoot of Alexander the Great’s Greek/Macedonian empire. 

Initially, the Jews living in Judea were allowed to practice their own religion and customs freely and without persecution. But that changed in 168 BC when a new emperor took the throne and decided to try and destroy Jewish culture from his realm. He sent troops to Jerusalem and ransacked the city, outlawed Judaism, and required the Jews to worship Greek gods. 

They then went on to destroy many of the city’s important religious buildings, including the Holy Second Temple of Jerusalem. In its place, they erected an altar to Zeus. 

In response, the Jews rebelled, and in just two years, they had managed to drive the Seleucids out of Jerusalem and restore some semblance of peace to their existence. 

One of the first things they did was relight the menorah, which is a Hebrew word for candelabrum, in the Second Temple, which was supposed to remain lit at all times.

Establishing Hanukkah Traditions

Once the Second Temple’s menorah was relit, the Jews, in an attempt to bring some peace and stability to their world, wanted to keep it lit. 

However, they only had enough olive oil to keep the candles ablaze for one day. Yet it lasted for a full eight days and nights, and this gave the people the chance to find more oil so that they could keep the candles going forever. 

At the time, this was proclaimed a miracle and taken as a symbol of the Jew’s ability to survive despite the harsh prosecution they had faced for centuries.

It’s this belief that God, once again, intervened on behalf of the Jews in one of their darkest hours that has contributed to the many Hanukkah celebration traditions still celebrated today.

Celebrating Hanukkah: Traditions and Customs

Although it’s one of the most widely-known Jewish holidays for people outside of the Jewish faith and culture, Hanukkah is actually a relatively minor holiday, especially as compared to others such as Passover and Rosh Hashanah. 

But it’s still celebrated by Jewish families all over the world. In fact, it has become more important over the past half-century or so as Jews around the world have worked to rebuild Jewish identity in the wake of the Holocaust.

Each year, Hanukkah begins on the 28th day of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, which usually places it sometime in November or December on the Gregorian calendar. It then last for eight days and eight nights, and includes the following traditions and customs:

Lighting the Menorah

Perhaps the most widely-known of all Hanukkah traditions is the lighting of the menorah. This custom derives directly from the holiday’s origin story — one of the first things the Jews did was relight the menorah inside the Second Temple of Jerusalem. 

Traditionally, each member of the household has their own menorah made up of nine candles. But it’s also acceptable to have one for the entire family. It’s also supposed to be displayed in a window or somewhere else where it can be seen from the street, and should be lit at sundown, when the candles will be most visible. 

On the first night, you are supposed to light the middle candle and the one all the way on the right. Then, on each subsequent night, you use the middle candle to light the next one in the line. After eight nights, all eight are lit.

The reason for doing it this way is to not only recreate the menorah in the Second Temple but also to pay respect to the miracle of the oil. The middle candle represents the ever-burning oil that kept the flames going for the entire eight-day period.

Hanukkah Food Traditions: Eating Fried Food

Like pretty much any holiday from around the world, hanukkah food traditions are a huge part of this yearly celebration. And once again, oil takes center stage. To honor this miracle, it’s customary to eat fried foods on Hanukkah, such as latkes —  potato pancakes —  and sufganiyot  jelly or custard filled doughnuts. 

Other hanukkah food traditions include beef brisket, which comes from Hanukkah falling in the dark, cold months of the year, as well as challah bread and other fried foods.

Unlike other Jewish holidays, there is no one “feast day.” Instead, families enjoy these special treats honoring the miracle of the oil for the entire eight day celebration.

Giving Gelt and Hanukkah Gift Traditions

Today, it has become tradition, particularly in the United States, for families to exchange gifts during Hanukkah. However, today’s Hanukkah gift traditions are relatively new and somewhat taken from the modern Christian tradition of gift giving. In an effort to commercialize the holiday, people have started mixing these two customs. 

However, there is some tradition of gift giving which relates to the tradition of gelt. Historically, gelt was a small donation made to the rabbi and other members of the community as an act of goodwill and brotherhood. 

Today, this still exists, and it’s common for Jews to give gelt to one another during the eight days of Hanukkah.

Playing Dreidel 

n addition to lighting candles, eating fried foods, and giving gelt, Hanukkah is also a time for games, mostly as a way of bringing people together. The most traditional game is dreidel, which refers to a small top that you spin. Based on how it falls, you either get or give gelt, which can be anything from money to sweets. 

Spending Time With Family

In the end, Hanukkah is what is known as a “home holiday.” There is no synagogue ceremony, and each individual family is meant to celebrate it at home with their families. 

In many Jewish households, the nightly lighting of the candle is a chance to bring everyone together, giving us the chance to step away from our busy lives and appreciate the beauty of life. 

Celebrate Hanukkah In Style

Now that you know a bit more about the tradition of Hanukkah as well as how it is celebrated, it’s time to do just that: celebrate! Find your menorah and some candles, and when 28 Kislev rolls around, take some time to give to others and celebrate loved ones. In the end, isn’t that what life is all about?

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