Its here, Hanukah, The American Jewish Christmas

By: Jeff Spector
December 3, 2010

I am over in Barcelona this week and had to be reminded that Hanukah started on Wednesday night (1 Dec).  I was talking to an Israeli colleague and asking him if Hanukah was a big deal in Israel. Not really, he said, it is a family holiday and we light the candles but it is not that big of deal.

Well, in the US, it is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas.

Just to explain for those who may not know. Hanukah (also known as the Festival of Lights) is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar celebrated for 8 days beginning on the 25th day of Kislev. Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, the dates vary on the Julian calendar, which is the one most of us use. Hanukah is very early this year.

Hanukah celebrations three important events:  The defeat of the Seleucid Empire by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, the  re-dedication of the second Temple after its desecration by the forces of the King of Syria Antiochus IV Epiphanes and, most importantly, the miracle of the oil in the Ner Tamid (the Eternal Flame, that burns in the Temple).

There was only enough oil to burn the light for one day, but miraculously, it lasted for 8 days.  Thus you have the eight days of Hanukah, which means “dedication.”

The holiday is celebrated by the lighting of the candles at sundown and a small gift is given.  Each night you light one additional candle until all the candles are lit on the eighth night. The Hanukah menorah or Hanukiah is a 9 candle menorah rather than the usual 7 candles. The middle candle is known as the Shamash or “attendant” candle.  It is lit first and is used to light the other candles. As you light the candles a prayer is sung.  On the first night a set of three prayers is recited, but on subsequent nights, only the first prayer is used.

ברוך אתה ה’ א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו להדליק נר של חנוכה.‏

Transliteration: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha‑olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner (shel) hanuka.

Translation: “Blessed art thou, O LORD, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light[s].”

It is a fun holiday with music, dancing, food and the famous “Dreidel.”  The dreidel is a 4-sided wooden or clay top that has a Hebrew letter on each side.  Believe it or not, it is used as a gambling game.  Each person spins the dreidel and when it lands on a letter, you either put money in the pot or take it out depending on the letter.

Which brings me to how is it celebrated in the US.  Jewish parents are obliged to give a gift to the children for each night on Hanukah. As a kid, we used to think this was a great deal because you got 8 gifts.  And they were generally good ones too. We Jewish kids didn’t want to miss out just because we didn’t have a Christmas.

So we couldn’t wait until sundown, light the candles and open the gifts.  My parents would remind us that when they were kids, they were lucky to get an orange or a nickel in “Hanukah geld” Geld is money in German/Yiddish.

When Hanukah comes this early, the Jewish kids can brag about their gifts while the Christian kids have to wait until Christmas.

So, as normal, a minor Jewish holiday has, at least in the US, succumbed to good ol’ extreme Yankee capitalism, much like Christmas.  I am not sure how many Jews could tell you in great detail the reason for the holiday of Hanukah.

“So tell me, son, why do we celebrate Hanukah?”

“Because the oil lasted for 8 days, now give me my gift!”

Could you only imagine you were a typical Mormon family with 8 children having to provide 64 gifts for Hanukah?

10 Responses to Its here, Hanukah, The American Jewish Christmas

  1. Chris H. on December 3, 2010 at 6:33 AM

    “Well, in the US, it is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas.”

    The joy of being defined by the Christian majority.

    “I am not sure how many Jews could tell you in great detail the reason for the holiday of Hanukah.”

    I have never known a Jew…and I have known many…who could not.

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  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on December 3, 2010 at 6:46 AM

    It is really a celebration of the rejection of Greek Humanism by the Jews. Interesting stuff, especially in our modern world.

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  3. Course Correction on December 3, 2010 at 9:04 AM

    At least Jewish parents don’t have to agonize about whether telling their children about Santa destroys their belief in Jesus.

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  4. Mike S on December 3, 2010 at 9:09 AM

    Thank you for this post – I appreciate all of your insights into the Jewish faith.

    This reminds me of when I was a little boy. Even though I was raised LDS, my parents thought it good to be exposed to many other cultures. For over a year, I was the lone blonde-headed kid in a Jewish synagogue each week, learning Hebrew, Jewish prayers and customs, etc. This brought back nice memories.

    Also, when my father was a bishop back East, the local synagogue burned down in our town. Since we didn’t use our building much on the Sabbath, my father gave sets of keys to the Jewish congregation and they used our building for over a year while they had things rebuilt. They took better care of the building than we did. :-)

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  5. rk on December 3, 2010 at 11:53 AM

    A couple of days ago instead of the usual Sesame Street program for American Children they had “Shalome Sesame” that all had to do with hannuka. It was kind of fun to learn some Hebrew letters.

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  6. Paul on December 3, 2010 at 11:55 AM

    When we lived in Venezuela, our daughter’s best friend was from a Jewish family — also expats from the US like us. She — and we — were greatly enriched from the association.

    Thanks for this piece, Jeff.

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  7. diane on December 3, 2010 at 2:05 PM

    I recently took a three week course on Judaism and I thoroughly enjoyed them. I’m looking for more classes just because I think its’ fun and interesting

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  8. diane on December 3, 2010 at 2:11 PM

    And I meant to add, In Philadelphia we just had a ridiculous problem with a Christmas Village which has Christmas items on sale outside of city hall. Which is funny because sitting outside of the Liberty bell there is a huge(And I do mean huge) Menorah. And I love it.
    So, what’s the problem you say. Its’ the Atheist. They wanted the word Christmas taken out of Christmas village. Are you kidding me? They didn’t say anything about the Menorah, but they complained about a Christmas village. and why because they were denied their own tree. Which they call a tree of knowledge. Just where do they got that concept from.

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  9. Matthew Chapman on December 4, 2010 at 2:47 PM

    When our kids were little, we had a modest family Hanukkah celebration each year. Over the course of the eight days, we lit the candles, played dreidl, generally had something fried in oil each night, (including latkes and donuts), told the story from Maccabees, and gave each child a small gift every day.

    I reminded the children that according to our belief, at the time of the Antiochus, Judah the Hammer, and the re-dedication of the Temple, the children of Israel were the only True Church on earth.

    It was part of our annual Christmas celebration. Our youngest ended up thinking that “Christmas” meant all of December, with “Christmas Eve” and “Christmas Day” only particular parts of the holiday.

    We never did manage to squeeze in a boxing day tradition, though.

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  10. John Hamer on December 5, 2010 at 9:48 AM

    We went to a Hanukah party last night and had a wonderful time with our friends. Happy Hanukah!

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