8 Crazy Nights: a look into The Festival of Lights

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Hollywood, MD—Most of us know not only what day Christmas falls on each year, but also its origin. We all seem to be akin to the manger scene, the three wise men, and of course Santa Claus. Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, and Christmas carols galore—they seem to be second nature to us. But there is another winter holiday that many of us celebrate that also deserves recognition and remembrance. Some refer to it as The Festival of Lights, but it’s more commonly known as Hanukkah.

The word Hanukkah itself is derived from a Hebrew word that means “to dedicate.” You may sometimes see this holiday’s name spelled “Chanukah” which is essentially the same word, but with a modern rather than classic Hebrew translation. Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah does not always fall on the same day every year. This year, Hanukkah starts Dec. 12, and ends on the evening of Wed, Dec. 20. Hanukkah is observed for eight days and eight nights, and starts on the 25th day of Kislev. Kislev is the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar, which can fall any time between November and December of the Gregorian calendar, which is what most of us are accustomed to.

One symbol of this holiday you may recognize is the menorah, a nine-branched candelabra. There are four long candles on each side, with one typically positoned higher than the others in the middle. The center candle is known as a shamash, and this flame is used to individually light the remaining candles on each evening. Before lighting the menorah each night, certain blessings are recited. There are three blessings, but only on the first night are all three recited. On the remaining nights, only the first two are spoken.

1.) Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Hannukkah light.
2.) Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.
3.) Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.

Other Hanukkah activities include playing dreidel and eating oil-based foods such as potato pancakes and jam-filled doughnuts. Dreidel is a four-sided top adorned with Hebrew letters symbolizing the phrase, “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the origin story of Hanukkah which is addressed below. The top spins, and those who play the game can win prizes such as coins, chocolate, nuts, candies, or other little markers. After lighting the candles of the menorah each night, it is tradition in some families to exchange gifts at this time as well.

There is a famous quote that is said to sum up almost every prominent Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” During the second century B.C., the Maccabees, a rebel army of Jews based in Israel, rose up against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, and their other oppressors. It is said that Antiochus IV outlawed the Jewish religion and forced Jews to worship Greek gods. Antiochus’ soldiers murdered thousands of people and destroyed the city’s holy Second Temple, erecting a platform to the Greek god Zeus and sacrificing pigs within the temple’s walls in Zeus’ name.

During the Maccabean Revolt, the Jews drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem. They aimed to take back their holy Second Temple. It was during this time that the miracle detailed on our modern-day dreidels occurred. The Jews that took part in the rededication only had enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah’s candle lit for a single day. Somehow, the flames continued to burn for eight nights, until they could find a fresh supply of the oil. Because of this, it was proclaimed by the sages that the Jews would celebrate an eight-day festival to commemorate this miraculous event.

Observing Hanukkah in a public manner is often encouraged in traditional Jewish homes, meaning that the menorah is placed in the front window of one’s home. Public gatherings of large menorah lightings are also fortified in these communities. While many of us partake in Christmas, not all of us do, and it is important to be mindful of other religious celebrations. Happy Hanukkah!

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