For those of you wondering what IS Hanukkah, here's a brief summary of the story behind the holiday. It actually commemorates a war fought in 2nd century BCE. The Greek King Antiochus ruled over Judea and forbid the practice of Judaism. He also commanded everyone to worship Greek idols. The Maccabees, a rebel group started by Rabbi Mattathias, refused to obey these laws. After Mattathias death, one of his sons, Judah, led the Maccabee rebel group and defeated the Seleucid monarchy after seven years of war. They liberated and rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Pure olive oil was needed to light the menorah in the Temple, which was supposed to burn all day and night. One flask of olive oil was found with enough for just one night, but it lasted for eight nights, just the right amount of time needed to prepare a fresh supply of the oil. A miracle! And that's how a holiday is born.
Now that you know why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights, here are some fun facts about the holiday.
It has different spellings
Hanukkah, Chanukah, Hannukah--which is it? Well, there is no right answer. Hanukkah has a ton of different spellings because there is no direct Hebrew-to-English translation.
In Hebrew, the word Hanukkah begins with the letter "het" which makes a "CH" sound (not the same way we pronounce CH In English but more guttural). Since that sound does not exist in English, it is translated a few different ways. Hence all the spellings of Hanukkah!
It doesn't begin on the same night every year
The date for Hanukkah on the English calendar changes every year. This is because the Hebrew calendar is based on the Lunar calendar, which follows the cycle of moons.
The holiday begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which can fall on the English calendar anywhere between Thanksgiving (it happened in 2013 and won't again for another 70,000 years!) or even as late as the new year.
We celebrate with fried food
That's right! Hanukkah is celebrated with fried foods, particularly latkes (potato pancakes fried in oil) and jelly donuts (called sufganiyot in Hebrew). This tradition symbolizes the oil the Maccabees used to light the menorah in the second temple, which miraculously lasted for eight nights!
It's a minor holiday
Hanukkah might be the most well-known Jewish holiday, but it's less important in religious significance compared to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover.
The holiday isn't mentioned in the Torah, which is the main reference of Jewish religious traditions, only the book of Maccabees.
The only religious ritual for Hanukkah is the lighting of the menorah and reciting of blessings, three on the first night and two on the rest of the nights.
We play Dreidel
Dreidel actually dates back to the time of King Antiochus' rule! The game was used as a cover-up so the Jews could continue to study Torah in secret. When a soldier or government official would raid a home where Jews were studying, they would quickly take out a Dreidel and give it a spin to make it look like they were playing a game.
Nowadays, kids play Dreidel during Hanukkah and win gelt (chocolate coins). The four Hebrew letters on the Dreidel are: Nun, Gimel, Hah and Shin, which form the acronym Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (translation: a great miracle happened there). If you land on a Nun, you get nothing. If you land on a Gimel, you get all the gelt. If you land on a Hah, you get half the gelt and if you land on a Shin, you have to put a piece of gelt in.