Christians celebrate Christmas. Often around the same time, Jews celebrate Hanukkah. This is a relatively minor holiday in strictly religious terms. It commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, at the time of the Maccabean Revolt.
Starting in the latter part of the twentieth century, many secular Jews began to celebrate it as an alternative to Christmas. That is especially the case here in North America. Go into a card shop and you will see Hanukkah greeting cards sitting alongside cards with Santa or the traditional nativity scene from Bethlehem.
Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, is observed for eight nights and days. It takes place in the Hebrew calendar at a time that corresponds to anywhere from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. This year it is celebrated from December 10-18.
Perhaps the most familiar symbol of Hanukkah is the menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum. Usually, one candle is separated from the other eight. It is used to light the eight candles, each representing a day of Hanukkah.
After lighting the candles, it is customary to play (or spin) the dreidel. This is a four-sided spinning top that children play with. It’s not just a toy. It is a toy with a message. Each side is imprinted with a Hebrew letter that ends up being an abbreviation for the Hebrew for a great miracle happened there. This is a reference to the miracle of the oil.
The name Hanukkah derives from the Hebrew verb meaning to dedicate, as in the rededication of the Temple. A good place to look for scriptural references to Hanukkah is the First and Second books of the Maccabees. It is there that we find a detailed description of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of the menorah.
Christian scripture refers to this festival. There is a reference in John10: 22-23, in which we read that the decision to kill Jesus occurs at the time of this feast.
Oil-based foods, such as latkes (fried potato fritters) and other treats, are associated with Hanukkah. The ideal is that olive oil be used. Eating these foods serves as a reminder of the miracle of the small flask of oil keeping the menorah of the second temple lit for eight days.
Hanukkah money (Gelt) is often given to children during these days. Many Jewish families supplement this with other gifts, so that Jewish children can enjoy gifts just as their Christmas-celebration peers do.
A typical greeting on cards is: May you be blessed with gifts of love, peace, and happiness this Hanukkah. It’s not just the Festival of Lights. May it also be a festival of hope, happiness, love, and health.