No, Hanukkah is not like a Jewish Christmas. Although Hanukkah is around Christmas time and is a gift giving Holiday, Hanukkah does not hold the same importance to the Jewish religion that Christmas does to the Christian religion. In fact, Hanukkah is far from the most important celebration recognized by Judaism.
Hanukkah comes from a Hebrew word meaning dedication. There are many different ways of spelling Hanukkah in English because it comes from a Hebrew word.
Like most things in Judaism, there are many interpretations of the story of Hanukkah. Some say that the Hanukkah celebration comes from a miracle that took place after Jews were able to rededicate the Second Temple of Jerusalem after Syrians had taken over, “massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls,” according to history.com.
The story goes like this — after the Jews had gained this victory over the Syrians, they only had enough oil to keep a Menorah lit for one night, but the flame burned on for eight miraculous nights. Others say that there was no miracle involved in Hanukkah at all and the Jews were simply celebrating Sukkot, a very important Jewish Holiday that they had not been allowed to celebrate under Syrian rule.
Hanukkah traditions consist of spending time with family, lighting the candles of the Menorah, playing Dreidel, and like any other Jewish celebration, lots of food. Jews usually eat foods that are cooked in oil like latkes, meaning potato pancakes, and sufganiot, known to English speakers as doughnuts.
“The candles of the Menorah are to be lit after sundown, since the holiday does not technically start until sundown of the first day of Hanukkah. Basically in Judaism, our days start at sundown, so this is why we light the candles when we do,” SLCC student Nate Dahlquist explained. “While lighting the candles, we recite the candle lighting prayer in Hebrew.”
“The Menorah candles are placed in the Menorah from right to left, oldest to newest and lit from newest to oldest, left to right, by the center candle called the Shamash candle, or the servant candle,” Dahlquist said.
“The Shamash…should stand out from the rest (i.e. higher or lower),” reads The Chabad Times, and is used to light all the other candles in the menorah. The candles of a menorah must be of equal height in a straight row.
If you are a South Park fan, you have probably heard the “Dreidel” song. The Dreidel is a 4-sided spinning top, each side has a different letter from the Hebrew alphabet; ‘Nun’, ‘Gimmel’, ‘Hay’, and ‘Shin’.
“The letters stand for the phrase ‘Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – a great miracle happened there,” states The Chabat Times. Dreidel is traditionally played throughout the Hanukkah celebration. Everyone who is playing must place something into a pile and then the players each take a turn spinning the Dreidel. Each letter located on the Dreidel instructs the player to do something different. The letter Nun instructs the player to neither take anything from the pile nor put anything into the pile, Gimmel means the player wins the whole pile, Hay means the player wins half the pile and Shin means the player looses all they have and must put it all into the pile.
Another aspect of Hanukkah is giving, mostly gift giving to family and friends. There are many different ways of doing this, much like Christmas. Some families give gifts every night of Hanukkah while others save up their gifts to open for the last night. Basic giving is also a part of Hanukkah. “It is customary to increase one’s daily giving to charity on Hanukkah,” The Chabad Times states.
Some people are very specific on where they hold their Hanukkah celebration; placing the menorah in a doorway that is opposite a mezuzah. A mezuzah is a piece of parchment that has the Jewish prayer “Shema Yisrael” written on it. The mezuzah is traditionally placed in doorways; some families have a mezuzah in every doorway excluding bathrooms, and some only have one mezuzah. Some people like to celebrate Hanukkah sitting between the mezuzah and the menorah as to be surrounded by the good things that both the items stand for.
“I enjoy Hanukkah because I get to spend time with my family. I like that Hanukkah brings your family together when otherwise you may be too caught up in life to pause and spend time with the people you care about most,” Dahlquist said.