Hanukkah: History and Family Traditions

Hanukkah 315

You recognize the menorah, and you’re familiar with the festive blue-and-white decorations. You might even have learned “The Dreidel Song” in an elementary school music class. But how much does your family really about Hanukkah?


Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights. While the gift-giving and family gatherings seem similar to Christmas (Dec. 25) celebrated by Christians, Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas, says Idy Goodman, Jewish family educator at the Jewish Community Center of Milwaukee, Wis. “The most important Jewish holiday is Shabbat. Then Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.”


Historically, Hanukkah celebrates the victory of a group of freedom fighters, the Maccabees, who revolted against the Syrian army invasion. Though they were greatly outnumbered, the Maccabees amazingly were able to expel the army from Jerusalem. After this great accomplishment, they worked feverishly to clean and repair their Holy Temple.


In order to rededicate the Temple in 164 B.C., the Maccabees needed to light the eternal light called the N’er Tamid, which is present in every Jewish house of worship and, once lighted, should never be extinguished. They only had enough oil for one day, and although they would take eight days to produce new oil, the flame burned for eight days. Hanukkah commemorates this miracle of the oil, as well as the victory by the Maccabees.


“Hanukkah celebrates freedom, miracles and fighting for what you believe in,” says Goodman, who believes the celebration has grown because of the timing and cultural influence of Christmas. “It’s a time for building family traditions and (making) memories, and I think Hanukkah has become more salient and more celebrated in today’s culture.”


Gift-giving at Hanukkah has become popular in the United States. Some families give gifts on each of the festival’s eight nights. In some households, children receive gelt, or coins; in some families, they’re gold-wrapped chocolate coins.


Here are details about the celebration you may not know.

Hanukkah – It’s the Jewish winter celebration.
You may not know … the word Hanukkah means “rededication,” reflecting the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem after the Syrians were forced out. In the original Hebrew language, it has only five letters, but in English there are at least 16 ways to spell it including Chanukkah and Khannuka.


Blue and White – Hanukkah decor tends to be blue and white, often associated with the winter season.

You may not know … the colors of Hanukkah reflect the colors in the blue and white colors of the flag of Israel.


Menorah – This candelabrum holds nine candles and may be the most familiar symbol of Hanukkah.

You may not know … the first candle lighted on the menorah is the one on the far right. The tallest candle in the middle is called the shamash, which means “servant” and is used to light the other candles. “The light of the menorah is not supposed to be used for anything except enjoying and reflecting on Hanukkah,” Goodman says. “It cannot be used to read or work or write by.” Impress your Jewish friends by referring to the candelabrum as a Chanukiah.


Dreidel – Children play a game of chance with the dreidel, a four-sided top that has a Hebrew letter on each side.

You may not know … tops like these were used by persecuted Jews to disguise their communications. “Some Jews were not allowed to study the Torah or were put in a prison, so they brought these dreidels with them as if they were playing a gambling game, when, in fact, they had time to study and plan,” says Goodman.


Today the dreidel’s Hebrew letters in most parts of the world, including the United States, stand for each word of the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, which translates to “A Great Miracle Happened There.” In Jerusalem, however, dreidels read Nes Gadol Hayah Poh, or “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”


Jelly Doughnuts and Potato Pancakes – Potato pancakes are a popular dish during Hanukkah, and you’ll notice that bakeries are often packed with fried doughnuts filled with jelly and covered with granulated or powered sugar.

You may not know … these foods are eaten because they are made with oil, another reminder of the miracle of the oil at the Temple. The traditional names for these foods are latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts).


Want to Learn More?
Pick up a copy of “Hanukkah Trivia: 150 Fun Facts about Hanukkah,” by Jennie Miller Helderman and Mary Caulkins (Crane Hill paperback, $6.95).


Author Sharon Cindrich is the mother of two, the author of the syndicated column Plugged In Parent. Learn more at www.PluggedInParent.com.