December 13, 2017: What is Hanukkah?

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A Brief History

On December 13, 2017, our Jewish friends celebrate the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication, known better as Hanukkah.  Right off the bat, the confusion starts with the spelling of “Hanukkah!”  You may find this word spelled several different ways, so just pick the one you like.  No matter how you spell it, Hanukkah adds up to 8 Crazy Nights!

Digging Deeper

Celebrated to commemorate the founding of the Second Temple, Hanukkah rites center around an 8 candle candelabrum called a menorah, with a ninth candle holder holding a candle called a Shamash, usually in the middle of the others and raised above, sometimes above a Star of David.

A hanukkiah, a menorah with nine branches

The ritual lasts for 8 days and nights, during which amusements include children playing with dreidels and the eating of ethnic Jewish foods, with daily prayer services and blessings after meals.  There are no strictly banned activities during Hanukkah, unlike some other Sabbath type rituals.  It is also common for family members to exchange gifts during Hanukkah, so Christians should not feel sorry for their Jewish brethren during December!  Hanukkah songs and psalms are sometimes sung, and the faithful are allowed to go to work and school, although often some time is taken off for the celebrations.

Hanukkah candles are to be burning for at least a half hour after dark.  The 8 candles, one used per day, commemorates the miracle of a one day supply of lamp oil lasting for 8 days during the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (built 516 BC, rededicated in 165 BC when the Jews overthrew the Seleucid rulers of Jerusalem), although the Hanukkah story and rituals were not written down until 6 centuries later.  (Note: The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 AD when the Romans put down a revolt by the Jews.  A pagan Roman temple was erected on Temple Mount, and later the invading Muslims erected the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the site in 705 AD. The Al-Aqsa Mosque and its Dome of the Rock still stand on Temple Mount.)

With many religions and other groups celebrating a major holiday around the time of the Winter Solstice (Muslim November-December holidays usually come a bit earlier), Hanukkah has become a familiar part of the “Holiday” season, along with Christmas, Kwanzaa, Festivus (for the restofus!) and pagan observances of the Winter Solstice.  Like Christmas, in the United States Hanukkah has received some cultural references, acknowledged in books, movies, and the like, and sometimes in a not so reverent way.  The infamous Adam Sandler rendition of “The Chanukah Song” was such a hit on Saturday Night Live that he made 3 more sequel songs about the holiday and the people in our society that celebrate the Festival of Lights.  Comedy Central’s South Park cartoon also seldom misses a chance to poke fun at any particular religion, and the token Jewish kid character, Kyle, sings “The Lonely Jew at Christmas” song, and while Kyle sings “The Dreidel Song” his frenemy Cartman taunts him with his own anti-Semitic song, “Jews Play Stupid Games.”  If these goofy songs were not enough, there is even a spoof of the Outkast song, “Hey Ya,” called “Hanukkah Hey Ya” by comedian Eric Schwartz.  Traditional Hanukkah songs are joined by even more of these spoof type Hanukkah songs, so Christians have no corner on the market of winter holiday spoof songs (think, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”).  Adam Sandler and his pals also produced an animated comedy motion picture in 2002 called Eight Crazy Nights.

We wish all our readers, friends and relatives, and anyone else for that matter, a happy Winter Holiday Season for each of the celebrations and holidays new and old.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Ashton, Dianne.  Hanukkah in America: A History (Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History).  NYU Press, 2013.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.