‘Tis the season for holiday cheer, and at the Mango Grove, spirits are high. The beauty of working around other polyglots is that we’re constantly learning new ways to say “Happy Holidays.” This week, we’re getting ready to say חנוכה שמח! (Happy Hanukkah!) It’s a festive, 8-day-long celebration that you might associate with the lighting of the menorah, chocolate coins, or perhaps the spinning dreidel. There’s a lot more to Hanukkah than just chocolate and dreidels, however - so grab some family, cozy up, and let’s dive into the story behind the beloved Jewish holiday.
It all started with a violent rebellion.
That’s right - unfortunately, the origins of what is now such a magical holiday were a little less than peaceful. Back in the year 200 B.C., the Land of Israel (also known as Judea) was under the rule of Antiochus III, the Seleucid King of Syria. During his reign, the Jews living in his kingdom were permitted to practice their own religion - that is, until his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes came along. Antiochus IV ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods, banning the Jewish religion and eventually destroying Jerusalem’s holy temple via a bloody massacre. Things did become less brutal, but not before the Jews had their say. The Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons led a large (and extremely effective) rebellion against Antiochus. Within 2 years, the Syrians had been driven out of Jerusalem entirely and the temple’s altar had been restored. As a symbol of knowledge and creation, the altar’s menorah (a sacred candelabrum with 7 branches) was lit, meant to burn each night.
Here’s where the true miracle comes in. In order for the menorah to continue burning, it required a specific amount of pure olive oil - much more than what they used. However, according to the story, a flask was discovered with only enough olive oil for one day of burning, although it had already burned for a full 8 days. In honor of this miracle, the Jewish sages declared an 8-day festival, leading to the Hanukkah celebration that we now know and love.
The candles aren’t for families, but for passersby.
Those beautiful menorahs you see twinkling in your neighbors’ windowsills? They’re actually there for you, as a reminder of the Hanukkah miracle and the triumph of the few over the many. For this reason, most lamps are placed in front of a large window or door facing the street.
As custom goes, most people light their menorahs at sundown, and the candles are meant to continue burning for at least half an hour after it gets dark. One candle is lit for each night of the 8-day holiday (celebrated from December 24 through January 1st this year), along with an extra light called a shamush that’s typically located either higher, lower or off to the side of the rest. Sometimes the shamash is used to light the other candles, and sometimes it’s the last to be lit, depending on the family.
Food is never, ever forgotten.
If you’ve ever tried traditional Hanukkah delicacies like the potato latkes pictured above, you already know why we’re in love with this holiday. What you might not know? Many Hanukkah foods are prepared using olive oil, as a way to honor the tiny bit of oil that kept the ancient temple’s menorah burning for a full 8 days. Besides latkes, sweet jam-filled donuts called sufganiyot and round fritters called bimuelos are also served. Not to mention the Hanukkah gelt that’s usually given to young children: small chocolate “coins” wrapped in gold foil.
Hanukkah as a symbol of Jewish identity.
Since many Jewish holidays are defined by holiday meals, candle-lighting, and the absence of work and school, Hanukkah is actually a pretty minor holiday by comparison. Unlike Sabbath holidays, there are no religious restrictions on work (8 days off would be nice, though!) That being said, Hanukkah remains an important symbol of Jewish identity in the 21st century. For Israelis and North Americans alike, the holiday represents resistance, freedom, and national liberation. Since the 20th century, Jewish families have traditionally given additional gifts to children during Hanukkah, since the dates overlap with those of Christmas.
For Jewish families around the world, Hanukkah is sure to be a memorable week filled with lots of light, prayer, gifts, and feasting. If you caught Hanukkah fever like we have, why not check out Mango’s Hebrew course? We’ve got all the culture and grammar insights you need to take a dive into the language’s unique and fascinating history. Whether your family celebrates Hanukkah or a different holiday this season, it never hurts to add a little language learning to the festivities. Head down to your local library in between meals and find out if they offer Mango Languages for free.