Hanukah. Chanukah. The Festival of Lights. Kosher Christmas. Kwanza’s hebrew brotha from anotha motha. Call it what you like, it’s December and the three-pronged multi-cultural holiday monster is rearing its ugly head once again. Unless, of course, you love this time of year, in which case let me say it (or sing it) differently: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”
The ”eight crazy nights” (Sandler’s words, not mine) of Hanukah carry thousands of years of history and tradition with them. But for those of you who have only a passing familiarity with the rites and rituals of your Jewish counterparts during December (or the month of Kislev, for you Jewish calendar sticklers), I thought it might be fun to lay down a little fact or fiction. So fasten your seat belts, kids, and get ready to take your first steps into a much larger world as I drop some knowledge…
1) Hanukah is not a major holiday on the Jewish calendar. Fact. You want the heavy hitters form the Hebrew holiday set, check out Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) or Yom Kippur (the day of atonement). The hullabaloo surrounding Hanukah is due in no small part to the gift giving, a tradition borrowed from our Christmas-observing brothers and sisters. Why co-opt a tradition that has nothing to do with our holiday? You parents out there know the answer. How many times can you listen to your kids ask in a pleading tone why their christian friends get presents for their holiday and we don’t? Exactly.
Hanukah commemorates the Jews reclaiming of the Second Temple from their oppressor King Antiochus. The wicked King had desecrated the Jews’ sacred house of worship while it was under his control in an effort to force them to embrace Hellenic religious beliefs. The Jews refused, observing and teaching the laws of their Torah in secret, and a small Jewish faction called the Maccabees hid and ultimately led a successful revolt to reclaim the Second Temple.
The central symbolic miracle that defines Hanukah occurred when the Jews were restoring the Temple, and went to relight the Ner Tamid (Eternal Flame). They only recovered enough oil to light the flame for one night. Miraculously, the flame stayed lit for eight days by which time new oil had been created to sustain the flame. Hence, the miracle that explains both the eight day duration of Hanukah, and its alternative name - “The Festival of Lights”.
2) The eating of fried food is not only allowed during the holiday, it’s encouraged. Fact. Like all Jewish holidays, there are foodstuffs associated with it. Since the defining miracle of Hanukah centered around the oil used to keep the Eternal Flame lit, foods prepared in oil, like potato pancakes (we call them “latkes”) and jelly donuts (we call them “sufganiyot”) are served during the eight day span. The pancakes are served with applesauce and sour cream. The jelly donuts are truly more like beignets with fruit filling, and in other parts of the world these tasty treats have a variety of filling options.
3) The holiday is lousy with gambling. Fiction. Fact. Well, sort of both. Back during the rule of Antiochus, Jews were forbidden from studying and practicing the teachings of the Torah. They did so in secret, and they would cover up their activities when agents of Antiochus came around by pulling out a dreidel and a pot full of gelt (coins) to create the illusion that they were gambling. The dreidel, for those of you in the dark, is a four sided top with Hebrew letters on all four sides that stand for how much of the pot gets distributed on any given roll. The game is played with modern day “gelt” (gold foil wrapped chocolate coins), and the letters of the dreidel also stand for the Hebrew phrase which translates to “A Great Miracle Happened There.”
Look at you. Five minutes of your attention and you’re a hebraic holiday maven (that’s Yiddish for “know-it-all”). Thanks for tuning in this year, and don’t be such a big shot that you overlook the opportunity to send something nice to your friends and loved ones from Exotic Flowers. They’ve got more in their bag than just the pushing of petals So don’t be such a shnook! Check it out! And Chag Sameach! (Happy Holiday!)
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