Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah! Happy Hanukkah to you!
In my family none of us are Jewish, and yet every year I find myself wishing I were celebrating Hanukkah just the same. It is such a beautiful holiday, with lovely, fun, and meaningful traditions. (And really great food.)
This year we’ve decided to do it! So we’re taking some time each evening at sundown to recite the blessings, spin a dreidel, and light the next candle on the menorah. For those of you interested in celebrating your first Hanukkah along with us, here is a basic primer on all the traditions, how to celebrate, what to eat, and what to give for the next eight nights.
Thanks to Adam Sandler, we all know that “Hanukkah is… the Festival of Lights!” But what does that mean?
Long ago, the people of Judea were asked by their Syrian king to give up their faith. One family in particular, the Maccabee family, refused. They fought against their king and eventually won, reclaiming their temple in Jerusalem and eradicating the Greek presence from their buildings. To celebrate, the Maccabee family wanted to light an eternal candle in the temple, but only had a very small jug of oil. Miraculously, that small jug of oil kept their candle lit for eight nights.
Today Hanukkah is the celebration of the victory over the Syrians, of the reclaimed temple, and of the miracule of the eight nights of light. “Chanukah” itself means “rededication.” (Source.)
Under Syrian rule, the Jews were not allowed to study the Torah. The Jewish children took to studying in small groups in secret, carrying these spinning tops with them so they could pull them out if questioned and pretend to be playing a simple game. Today the dreidels are marked with four Hebrew letters, an acronym of the phrase “Nes gadol hayah sham,” which means “A great miracle happened there.” For some traditional games to play with these dreidels, check out The Dreidel Wizard. (Source.)
On each night of Hanukkah at sundown, you light the next candle on the menorah, working from right to left (the way Hebrew is read), using the center candle to light the wick. As you light the candle you recite the blessings.
There are three blessings recited at Hanukkah. All three are recited the first night, and only the first two the remainder of the nights. You can learn more about these blessings (as well as how to pronounce them!) at Chabad.org.
I love Hanukkah foods! Since the holiday memorializes the jug of oil that lasted eight nights, Hanukkah food is primarily, delightfully oily. Think latkes, fried doughnuts, rugelach (if you’ve never had rugelach you are missing out), blintzes, and apple fritters. Amazing. Click here for some traditional Hanukkah recipes!
The traditional gift at Hanukkah is Gelt, foil wrapped chocolate coins. Who doesn’t love chocolate coins? Many families opt to give other small gifts each night, with the value of the gifts increasing as the nights go on. What could be bad about eight nights of gifts, I ask you?
Hanukkah begins the evening of Tuesday, December 20 (that’s tonight!), and ends in the evening of Wednesday, December 28th. Do you celebrate Hanukkah? If so, Happy Hanukkah to you! And mazel tov!