Hanukkah History & Traditions

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Top Traditions

These five elements are part of traditional Hanukkah celebrations.

1. Light the Menorah
Hanukkah Mantel
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Hanukkah means it's time for
the menorah, dreidels, and gelt.

The centerpiece of the Hanukkah celebration is the hanukkiah or menorah, a candelabra that holds nine candles. Eight candles symbolize the number of days that the Temple lantern blazed; the ninth, the shamash, is a helper candle used to light the others. Families light one candle on the first day, two on the second (and so on) after sundown during the eight days of Hanukkah, while reciting prayers and singing songs. The menorah -- either store-bought or homemade and crafted of metal, wood, papier mache, or clay -- is filled from right to left, but lit left to right so each new candle is lit first.

2. Sing Songs

Hanukkah -- one of the most family-oriented of Jewish holidays -- comes with its own set of carols sung around the glowing menorah. These celebrate everything from the glory of God and the ancient Temple of the Jews ("Maoz Tzur") to the simplicity of a dreidel (see below), as in "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel/I made it out of clay/And when it's dry and ready/Dreidel I shall play." Check out these carols at the Internet site Celebrate with JOI.

3. Yummy Fried Treats
The fried dough of sufganyot
represents an oil lamp that stayed
lit for eight days.

There's nothing low-fat about Hanukkah -- the traditional foods of the holiday are deep-fried and caloric. In honor of the oil-y miracle at the center of Hanukkah -- the story of the lamp in the Temple burning bright for eight days even though there was only enough fuel for one day -- Jews eat oily foods like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganyot (jelly-filled doughnuts).

4. Spinning Tops

It's customary to play with dreidels (spinning tops) during the holiday, even wage gambling games in which players guess which side of the top will fall face up. Legend has it that during the Greek-Syrian dictatorship in Israel of yore, Jews got around the ban on reading the Torah by bringing spinning tops to study sessions so their oppressors would think they were just playing around. The Hebrew characters carved into the four sides of today's dreidels are the first letters of "Ness Gadol Haya Po/Sham," which roughly translates to "Great Miracle Happened Here/There" (depending on whether you're in Israel or not).

5. Gold Coins

The tradition of handing out gelt (the Yiddish word for "money") during Hanukkah probably dates back to 17th-century Poland. The practice is most likely a nod to the fact that the only time Jews were historically free to mint their own coins, in their own state, was after the Maccabean revolt, when the land around Jerusalem was governed by Jewish kings for over a century. The coins distributed during Hanukkah -- either real currency or chocolate-covered coins -- are thus a symbol of Jewish independence. They're also just a way to spread good cheer with things people can always use more of: cash and chocolate.


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