Eight Lights, Eight Symbols: Unveiling the Significance of Hanukkah’s Icons


Menorrah on coffee table main

Hanukkah (or however you spell it) is a Jewish holiday taking over eight days in late November and early December. It honors the rededication of the Jewish temple, which was made impure by pagan leaders. A sacred lampstand (menorah) has eight candles, one for each day of the celebration. Jews use dreidels (four-sided tops), gelt (money), fried foods, and a whole lot more to honor their culture and traditions. 

Hanukkah Origins

And Judas, and his brethren, and all the church of Israel decreed, that the day of the dedication of the altar should be kept in its season from year to year for eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month of Casleu, with joy and gladness.

1 Maccabees

Greek-Syrian leadership controlled the Jewish temple’s location in the second century BCE. Pagans took control of the temple and installed a statue of their god. The temple was ritually impure. A Jewish rebellion began as described in the biblical books about the Maccabees.

Jewish rebels regained control of the temple. Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for “dedication.” The Jews re-dedicated their temple to their God, an eight-day ceremony. 

The gospel of John (written in the late first century CE) references the holiday taking place. The Romans destroyed the Jewish temple when the Jews rebelled. Nonetheless, the Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah in honor of their victory until today.  

Jewish People 

Jewish people join together by culture, history, and religion. 

Hanukkah is both a religious and cultural holiday. It is a celebration of Judaism and the Jewish people. The original historical event honored the freedom to worship. The holiday celebrates religious liberty. Jews, often a minority where they live, can worship as they please.  

Resilience 

Jews scattered all over the world. They often are a small group in the middle of people with different religious beliefs. Many Jews adapt and assimilate. Jewish ways begin to disappear.  

Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish people, including their continual survival among other cultures. The holiday celebrates resilience, the ability to survive difficult times.  

Family 

It is a Jewish family holiday. Hanukkah is a time to eat and be merry. The whole family comes together to celebrate. Like Thanksgiving and Christmas, people far and wide unite as one. 

The holiday has eight days, with many events that the whole family can enjoy. Everyone can be involved in cooking, eating, decorating, playing, gift-giving, and religious ceremonies. 

Menorah 

A menorah is a sacred lampstand. A typical Hanukkah menorah has a central branch (shamash) with four branches on each side. Jews light a candle (with the central candle) for each of the eight days of Hanukkah.  They place the menorah in front of their homes or a front window.  

A story arose that tells of a miracle. When the Jews first rededicated their temple, they found only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for all eight days. This miracle emphasizes that God blesses the Jews and looks over them.  

Some Jews believe the true miracle was their ability to regain control of the temple and continue to worship as they pleased. Either way, the menorah provides another name for Hanukkah, the “Festival of Lights.”  Hanukkah is a celebration of light in an often dark world. 

Dreidel 

A dreidel is a four-sided top with Hebrew letters on each side. The letters represent the words “a great miracle happened there,” referencing the Hanukkah miracle.  

The usual story told about the dreidel was that it was often dangerous to study the Jewish scriptures in lands controlled by other religions. If danger arose, the Jews would say that they were just playing with their dreidel. The top is also a fun toy for each member of the family.  

Gelt and Gifts 

Gelt are coins, sometimes chocolate coins in tinfoil, given during Hanukkah. 

They sometimes are prizes for winning dreidel games. People also receive small Hanukkah gifts on each day. The holiday is eight days long. The gifts are usually small ones! 

Some Hanukkah Gift Ideas

Winter Season 

Is this starting to sound like Christmas? Sometimes, there is even a Hanukkah tree. 

Hanukkah is one of many winter festivals celebrated by cultures around the world. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is some overlap. Different cultures provide special touches. 

The holiday falls in late November and early December, depending on when it arrives on the Jewish calendar. Christians also have moving holidays, including Easter Sunday. 

Hanukkah should not be labeled a “Jewish Christmas.” Christmas is a Christian holiday. Christmas is more important to Christianity. It honors the birth of the Christian savior. It is insulting to equalize the two. Hanukkah also arose before the birth of Jesus!

Food  

What is a holiday without food? Hanukkah has lots of delicious food, each with a special meaning. A favorite dish is latkes, which are fried potato pancakes. Food fried in oil reminds those celebrating of the oil used to rededicate the temple. Fried jelly donuts are another.  

Jewish people are known for their food. Just check out a Jewish deli. 

Enjoy Some Hanukkah Recipes 

How Exactly Do You Spell It?! 

The translation of foreign words is an inexact science. When people translate words from one language to another, including Hebrew to English, there can be many possible spellings.  

Therefore, there are various ways to spell the word. You can find it spelled Hanukkah or Chanukkah or each way with one less “k” or some other way. 

It does not matter. The essential thing to do is enjoy the holiday!

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