If you are Christian, like I am, you probably do not have much experience celebrating Hanukah. Here are a few tips and facts to get you started!
1. Why are there many spellings for Chanukah? Hebrew has an alphabet that different than the English alphabet so the word is ‘transliterated’ meaning that it is spelled out phonetically. Different people decided on different spellings and in this case, all of them became acceptable, likely because Jewish people tend to live in large groups in order to worship together, so there were already many people using each spelling…..
2. Chanukah is mentioned in the Bible as being celebrated by Jesus. It is called the Feast of Dedication and is mentioned in John 10:22.
3. So, what is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah is a celebration of a miracle. Some focus on the miracle of the oil lasting 8 days so the priests could continue cleaning the Temple while new oil was being purified in order to be used in the Temple menorah. Others focus on the fact that a small people group, the Jews, defeated a very large, impressive army and took back their land. Both are miraculous and deserve recognition!
So, allow me to tell you the story of Chanukah (my favorite spelling by the way!).
After Alexander the Great died, the lands he conquered were split into 4, then 5 kingdoms which were ruled by his generals. Israel was in an odd position as reportedly Alexander and his army showed up, the priests showed Alexander that he was prophesied in their writings, he left thinking that they had surrendered and the Jewish people thought he was leaving them alone. Later, Israel would pay a tribute to nearby kings, but that was not the same as being conquered, but it was something, and everyone was semi-content. (A thousand historians just pulled their hair and screamed over this over-simplification….)
So, a crazy king named Antiochus Epiphanius wants to conquer everything and be like Alexander. His name means God on earth, just to give you an idea of his brand of crazy, and he does want people to worship him. His kingdom is north of Israel and to get to the ‘everything’ he wishes to conquer he must go through Israel. He forces the high priests to sacrifice pigs, desecrating (ruining) the altar at the Temple, and then everything in the Temple (which is why it needs to be cleaned) and then continues into the countryside. There he is met by a group of priests, who pretend to go along with him, then attack his men and lead a successful rebellion. These are the Maccabees and their nickname is Strong Hammer. The older priest, the father of the family who leads the revolt, is in his 80s and dies soon after, and his son, Judah, who also fought, becomes a leader. This family will become priest-kings in the inter-testimonial time when this occurs, until Rome takes control. (Chanukah occurs in the time between the Old and the New Testament. It always bothers me when people imply God was not involved with His people during this period. Just because nothing was recorded in the Bible, does not mean God was silent, and Chanukah is proof of that! -Also, there was a female queen of Israel during this time, Salome Alexandra, who has an interesting story….)
The priests immediately began working to clean the Temple but found only one jar of purified oil. The Temple has no windows, but has a seven branched menorah, and gold-plated walls which reflect its light. Without the menorah, they would be cleaning in the dark…. It takes eight days to purify the oil, but they were in a hurry, so they started working, getting as much done as they could before the oil they had ran out. The oil lasted the entire 8 days, when it should have lasted only one, until the new oil was ready, so their work was not interrupted. The Hanukkiah (an eight branched menorah) has one more branch than the Temple Menorah and represents the eight days the oil lasted. It is lit from right to left (the way Hebrew is read) by the candle that is either in the middle or off to the side on some modern Hanukkiah. This is the servant candle, and is left lit as well. The candles for the Hanukkiah are made to burn for one hour, and the Hanukkiah is to be set in a window for all to see.
4. So, how do we celebrate?
There are many ways to celebrate, so feel free to use the internet for more ideas. Since we also celebrate Christmas, we do not get together for all 8 days, and do not give gifts at this time. Most years we meet as a large group just once during this time. We eat challah (sweet, braided bread), have a meal, play the dreidel game, light the menorah (hanukkiah), tell the story of Chanukah and give out chocolate coins (gelt). Sometimes we incorporate other treats typical to the Jewish culture. There are many ways to celebrate, so look up ideas on the internet- there are many- and make the celebration your own!
5. The next question you will have is- Why is the dreidel game so boring?!?!?
This game is actually purposefully boring, and it was a brilliant plan. During times of occupation, teaching the torah was often prohibited. The Jewish people would ignore this rule and teach it anyways. To hide their gatherings, they would play the dreidel game. It was so boring no non-Jewish person would want to play for long. It was also easy to pick up and put down the game when others came, so that no one looked too suspicious, and then go back to studying. There are references in historical texts of pagan writers complaining about the Jewish people always playing that infernal game! Little did they know…. My children when they were young, and now my grandchildren do enjoy the game however boring it may be. The adults breathe a sigh of relief however when they are finally out. Typically, we play for small pieces of candy, but small coins or other things may be used. Interestingly the Jewish people at this time believed that learning should be rewarded since following the Word of God resulted in blessings in your life, so they often rewarded the children for learning with honeyed candies. Living out at least portions of history helps children understand and retain what they learn. I hope this helps you feel more comfortable adding something extra into your holiday time. You can also use it as a teaching tool out of season, if the holidays are already too overwhelming! Sukkot (the feast of booths/ tabernacles), Passover and Purim (especially Purim, where you get to dress up!) are also fun to celebrate as a family as well. Look for my posts regarding those holidays as well.