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Festivals of Light: Hanukkah

November 26, 2020

By Aha Blume, Volunteer of the Children’s International Learning Centre.

The book of the Maccabees tells the story of Hanukkah. When King Antiochus took over Jerusalem, he decided everyone must practice his religion. His people worshiped idols, and the Jewish people did not. So the Jews went into caves and practiced their religion in secret. One day, Mattitias, a Jewish priest and his sons decided to fight back. Mattitias’s son Judah the Maccabee (hammer) led a small army against the King’s larger army. Miraculously, the small Maccabee army defeated the Greeks. When the Jews returned to the Temple in Jerusalem to rededicate it, they only had enough oil to light the menorah for one day. The second miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil lasted for eight days, which was enough time for them to make more oil. This is why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days.

Hanukkah setup with menorah and scrolls

Every year in November or December, depending on when Hanukkah falls in the Lunar calendar, Jews all over the world gather to celebrate the Festival of Light. They light a special menorah called a Hanukkiah which has nine branches. Regular menorahs that are seen in synagogues and temples have seven. There is one candle for each of the eight days of Hanukkah and a Shamesh or helper candle that lights all the other candles. When putting the candles in the Hanukkiah they are placed from the right side, then the newest candle (for that night) is lit first. This means that the candles are lit from left to right. Jews eat potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly doughnuts (suffganiot) which are fried in oil, to commemorate the miracle.

They also play with a dreidyl which is a spinning top. The four Hebrew letters on the dreidyl stand for Nesh Gadol Hayah Shem which means A Great Miracle Happened There (Jerusalem) so we remember the miracle. Dreidyls in Israel say Nesh Gadol Hayah Po — A Great Miracle Happened Here. Traditionally, the children are given Hanukkah gelt (money) to play the game. Many families give chocolate gelt to play the game. In recent decades, giving presents was added to the holiday. Some children receive eight little presents, one for each day.

There are 16 different ways of spelling Hanukkah in English. The traditional spelling is Chanukah.  The most common spelling is Hanukkah. The other spellings vary based on which of these you follow:

  • The word starts with “H” or “Ch”
  • Second consonant is “nn” or “n”
  • Third consonant is “kk” or “k”
  • The word ends with “ah” or “a”

In my family, the day we gather for a Hanukkah party depends on when the holiday falls. Sometimes we’ve even done a pre-Hanukkah or post-Hanukkah party. Every year someone makes latkes. People put sour cream or apple sauce (or both) on them depending on preference. We light the candles; adding one for each night of Hanukkah, and say the blessings. After dinner, we play the dreidyl game. We used to play with pennies. Now, we usually play with chocolate money. We then exchange presents. Some years, my Mom would get everyone socks as a present. Everyone would pick pairs until there was none left. My uncle and cousin then get out their guitars, and we sing songs — both Hanukkah and non-Hanukkah a like.

Museum display of Hanukkah table setup during celebratin with food and menorahs
Museum display showcasing a family and Hanukkah celebration including large book

The Children’s International Learning Centre (CILC) is a non-profit organization that was established with the vision of contributing to a world of care and respect for all people and our environment. We endeavour to do this by promoting respect for diversity and awareness of our world community through guided discovery and interactive, artistic programmes, which will soon be delivered online.

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