A joyous holiday that celebrates a miracle of long ago, Hanukkah (also spelled Hannukah or Chanukkah) is a time for Jewish families to gather together for prayers, food, games, and much more. Usually occurring around the same time as the Christian holiday of Christmas, Hanukkah has emerged through the centuries from a simple remembrance that involved lighting candles and reciting traditional prayers to something more elaborate and celebratory. These days, especially in America, children look forward to receiving lots of gifts and enjoying traditional foods like latkes (potato pancakes), loukoumades (deep-fried puffs dipped in honey and sugar), and sufganiyot (Israeli jelly doughnuts). Children also play games with the dreidel, a top-like toy that has come to be associated with the holiday.
Families and friends honor the holiday with gifts and greeting cards and often – given today's technology – with e-cards, both serious and witty. Some Jewish families gather for special dinners on the first night of the holiday while others hold open houses throughout the eight nights of Hanukkah. No matter how they choose to celebrate, it's a holiday that pays homage to an important event in the Jewish faith.
The Hebrew word Hanukkah means "dedication" and the holiday that bears the name commemorates the rededication of the holy temple in Jerusalem after the Jews defeated the Syrians in 165 B.C. Prior to the defeat, the King of Syria had outlawed all Jewish rituals and demanded that the Jews worship traditional Greek Gods. Some Jews decided to fight back.
The story that most tell in association with the holiday is that of Judah Maccabee and his soldiers, who entered the temple to clean and prepare it for rededication. The men were distressed to find that many things in the temple had been removed by the Syrians or were broken, including the sacred golden menorah. When they were through making repairs, the soldiers decided to would be appropriate to once again light the menorah. However, when they began searching for oil, they found only a very small flask that would last perhaps one day. But a miracle occurred – the tiny amount of oil lasted for eight days!
Today, in commemoration of the miracle, Jewish families light eight candles on their menorah, one for each night of the holiday. Also, many traditional foods are cooked in oil, further celebrating the miracle of long ago. Children receive gifts of gelt (chocolate coins) to commemorate the money that was minted by the new independent Maccabee state. The tradition of receiving one gift on each night of the holiday, however, is fairly recent and is much more common in America than in Israel and other countries.
Hanukkah begins at sundown on the evening before the date below:
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