Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins at sunset today, Dec. 20, and ends at sunset Wednesday, Dec. 28.
When many people think of Hanukkah--sometimes spelled Chanukah because of its pronunciation in Hebrew--they think of spinning tops called dreidels, the nine-armed version of a menorah called a chanukiah and Adam Sandler.
But here are a few things you might not know about the world’s most oft misspelled eight-day holiday:
1. The dates of Hanukkah are always different. Well, at least to our calendar. If you had a Hebrew calendar on hand, you’d see that Hanukkah always begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month Kislev.
For our Gregorian calendar, Hanukkah can begin anywhere between late November and late December, depending on the year. But why the 25th? Because…
2. Hanukkah commemorates the victory of a small Jewish army over an empire. On that 25th day of Kislev, somewhere around the 2nd century B.C., a Jewish rebel group called the Maccabees fought against a much larger army made up of Greeks and Macedonians.
The Maccabees overcame the army and rededicated the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, which is the most technical reason Hanukkah is celebrated today. Oh, and there was also this little miracle…
3. The Hanukkah menorah, aka the chanukiah, has nine arms in association with two miracles of oil. So, the Maccabees fought off an army, rededicated their holy temple, and then ran into another problem: They had only enough pure olive oil to light the traditional seven-armed menorah for one day.
So they lit it anyway, and that one-day supply somehow (miraculously!) lasted eight days long, which is why the Festival of Lights is celebrated for eight days.
From that point on, the traditional menorah maintained its seven branches and the chanukiah became nine (eight days of celebration, and one “attendant candle” used to light all other candles).
4. Also thanks to this miracle, it is tradition to eat foods fried in oil. I’m sure most Americans would love this holiday excuse. “What? I have to eat something fried in oil? Woe is me…”
The most common Hanukkah food out of Israel is a fried donut filled with jelly, called sufganiyot. It’s also common to consume dairy products on Hanukkah, in honor of a slightly more grisly story.
5. The dreidel may seem like just a toy, but it’s actually an ancient slot machine. Back in the day (you know, B.C. times), the Syrians forbade people from learning the Torah, the Jewish holy book. In fact, the crime was punishable by death!
Still, faithful children would convene and study the Torah in secrecy. When homes were raided, the children would pull out dreidels and pretend to just be gambling--while Syrian law disallowed learning about God, apparently adolescent addiction was just fine.
Today, a common gift associated with dreidels are chocolate coins, another homage to the ancient Jewish children’s secret love of study.
There’s a lot more fun Hanukkah facts where that came from. Happy Chanukiah-lighting!