To my fellow Jews celebrating the first night of Hanukkah this evening, I wish you and your families a Happy Hanukkah. To everyone else, I’d like to inform you (or remind you) that Hanukkah is not a variation of Christmas. In fact, it’s actually a pretty minor Jewish holiday. Here’s the scoop:
Some folks call it Chanukah, but whatever you call it, the holiday, known as the Festival of Lights, commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE.
As the story goes, the Maccabees successfully rebelled against Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Even though there was only enough oil for one day, the wicks of the menorah miraculously burned for eight days — which is why we light candles for eight nights of Hanukkah.
Since Hanukkah generally falls around Christmas, in North America, secular Jews highlighted the holiday – in part, so their kids wouldn’t feel too badly about missing out on Santa’s presents.
Traditionally, Ashkenazi Jews gave children “gelt” or money coins (or chocolate coins!) to their children during Hanukkah. But that idea expanded into presents (again, so kids didn’t feel left out of Christmas).
For an excellent and thorough description of the history of Hanukkah and how people came to view it as the Jewish Christmas, read Dale Rosenberg’s blog post at Park Slope Parents. Here’s a bit of what she has to say on the topic:
If you’re trying to think of a holiday to compare Hanukah to, it’s not in any sense the “Jewish Christmas.” It doesn’t have that importance in our calendar. Even though it commemorates a military victory, it’s not even the “Jewish Fourth of July,” really, since that tends to be a day not only for special foods (barbecue) and celebratory activities (fireworks), but also one most people don’t work on. It’s a little more than the “Jewish Groundhog Day” I suppose, but not much more. It’s a holiday that is celebrated by Jews worldwide, but in a very low key way.
Yes, some Jews celebrate Christmas and some turn Hanukkah into a sort of Christmas-substitute. But the reality is, it’s nothing like Christmas.
Now that we’ve gotten that straightened out, Happy Hanukkah!
How do you plan to celebrate?