Tonight is the first night of Chanukah.  Or Hanukkah.  Same difference.  To those who celebrate, I wish you a Chag Sameach, a happy holiday.  And to those who don’t, I thought I’d give you a bit of FAQ on this festival of lights.

How do you actually spell the name of this holiday?!

The name of the holiday is really spelled in Hebrew, starting with the letter chet, which is transliterated as Ch or H, and as Angelica from the Rugrats says, “You’ve got to ‘khah’ when you say it.”  But as for spelling?  Both Hanukkah and Chanukah are totally correct, so take your pick!

I know Christmas is about the birth of Christ.  What is Hanukkah about?

My family likes to joke that every Jewish holiday has the same theme:  they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.  But seriously, this holiday follows that same formula, with two special miracles that we commemorate.  A small greatly outnumbered army of Jews, called the Maccabees, overcame the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE after they had occupied the Jew’s Holy Temple and tried to convert the Jews to their worship of their gods.  Victory = miracle number one.  The Temple was ransacked and defiled, and when the Maccabees went to light the Menorah, the holy candelabra in the Temple that was supposed to be always aflame, there was only enough oil for one night.  Miraculously, that oil lasted for eight days and nights…miracle number two.


Why is Hanukkah so early?  And why does the date change every year?

Jewish holidays are tricky because they don’t follow our normal secular calendar.  They follow a calendar based on the lunar calendar (kind of like those wacky 28 day cycles that don’t follow our 30/31 day calendars for TTC).  The date for Hanukkah is the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, and because of this strange ebb and flow between the Jewish lunar calendar and our Gregorian calendar, Hanukkah can begin anywhere from November 28 (like this year) and December 26.

Wait, but today is the 27th!  Why are you saying Happy Hanukkah for tonight?

Yet another quirky Jewish holiday fact – the holidays always have their official start at sundown the night before the first “day.”  So tomorrow, Thanksgiving, is the first “day” of Hanukkah, but tonight is the first night.

What do Jews do to celebrate Hanukkah? 

There are three main traditions for Hanukkah.  The first is lighting the Menorah (if you want to get picky, it’s actually a nine-armed candelabra called a Chanukiah), adding one candle each night.  Second, keeping with the miraculous oil theme of Hanukkah, we eat a lot of fried delicious food, from deep fried jelly donuts called sufganiot to latkes or potato pancakes. Finally, we play a game called dreidel, which is a special four-sided spinning top with Hebrew letters on each side.  The letters stand for Hebrew words that mean “A great miracle happened there.”  For more info on how to play, click here.

What about gifts?  Isn’t that a part of Hanukkah?

The exchanging of gifts is a custom that has grown because of the commercialization of the Christmas season.  Traditionally, families would give their children a bit of gelt, the Yiddish word for money, but over time, this has evolved to presents.  Some families do one small gift for each of the eight nights, some do one gift for the holiday, some stick to giving gelt – the custom varies by household.

There you have it – a few fun facts about the holiday.  Happy Hanukkah, Hive!!

(image source)