The Idiot’s Guide to Chanukah
Chanukah. Hanukkah. Chanuka. So nice, I spelled it thrice. What’s not to like about the Festival of Lights? A time to sing….to play….to clog your arteries with cooking oil. LET’S PARTY! Whether you like your latkes with apple sauce or sour cream, there’s much to celebrate for eight days this December, so gather round for a short lesson about the upcoming holiday.
What’s this celebration all about? In 168 BCE, the Syrian-Greek army gained control of the Jewish Temple. In 167 BCE, their king, Antiochus, declared that followers of Judaism would be killed. And in 166 BCE, Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees declared that one day, a cappella groups would sing their praises on Youtube.
Regaining control of their land, the Maccabees returned to the Temple to find enough oil to light the Temple’s ritual menorah (candelabrum) for just one day. To their surprise, it lasted eight. And to this very day, we commemorate this miracle by eating an inhuman amount of fried foods. The most popular oil-coated delicacies are jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot, primarily in Israel) and deep-fried potato pancakes (latkes), which taste like pancakes in much the same way that cotton candy tastes like liquid mercury. Let’s see Santa fit into those red sweatpants after a single trip to Roladin.
While many Jews in the United States give gifts during this time, the custom developed in order to prevent Jewish children from feeling left out during Christmastime. (The Jewish holiday associated with gift-giving is actually Purim, which usually falls in March and may explain why halfway through the month, left-out Catholics gift each other with green beer.)
To mark these eight festive days, Jews light a special menorah known as a chanukiyah. (To our helicopter menorah parent readers, please do not respond angrily in the comments. We are not saying that your menorah is not also special.) The first night, we light one candle, the second night two, and so on. Each candle is lit from a separate candle called the shamash whose job is illumination, as using the ritual candles for light is forbidden. The shamash sits apart, or above the others, which can occasionally lead to issues of jealousy, petty name calling, and online candle bullying.
Now that we’ve lit the candles and sung joyful songs, let’s have some fun. It is tradition for young children to play with a dreidel, a four-sided top with letters on each side, each one corresponding to an amount of goodies the spinner will win or lose, based on how the dreidel lands. The main lessons to take from this are, one, that Chanukah is a happy occasion, and two, that gambling should begin at a young age.
However you plan to celebrate, spin that dreidel loud and spin it proud. Chag Chanukah sameach!
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This column was originally published by the Times of Israel.