Happy Chanukah: Learning About the 8-Day Celebration


You may be familiar with a Menorah, “The Dreidel Song”, or Adam Sandler’s comedic four versions of “The Hanukkah Song,” but what is Chanukah, and why is it eight nights long?


Chanukah, (also spelled Hanukkah or Chanuka, among others) is a “Festival of Lights,” celebrated each winter, depending on the Jewish Calendar. Though, it’s usually before Christmas. Unlike Christmas or Kwanzaa, which are both unique holidays in their own ways, the Chanukah celebration lasts for 8 days. This year, it started at sundown on Sunday, November 28th, and will last until Monday, December 6th.


Chanukah is Hebrew for “dedication,” and it is a celebration of the determination and courage of the Jewish rebel warriors, the Maccabees. It is a commemoration of the historic Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids, a Syrian-Greek empire.


In the second century BCE, the Jewish holy land, Israel, was under control of the Seleucids, a group of Syrian-Greeks. They forced the Jewish people to adopt their European beliefs, leaving their Jewish identity behind. The Maccabees were a small but mighty group of Jews that fought against the oppression, discrimination, and forced diaspora they suffered, and they ended up defeating the powerful Seleucid army, taking back the Holy Jewish Temple. 


This is how the menorah became one of the most iconic holiday symbols. When lighting the temple’s menorah post-battle, the Maccabees only found one vessel of olive oil. That one-day supply of oil miraculously burned for eight days, leading to the well-known Chanukah tradition: the nightly lighting of the menorah for eight days! The menorah has nine candles and flames – one for each of the eight nights and the shamash, Hebrew for “attendant,” which is the candle that is used to light the others. On day one, the shamash is lit from an outside source and used to light the first candle on the right. Daily, another candle is added. On the eighth and final night, the shamash starts on the left of the menorah and lights all eight candles one by one until it is fully kindled. A special Hallel prayer is recited, thanking G-d for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few … the wicked into the hands of the righteous..” Often placed in windows, this iconic Chanukah symbol is found around the globe, from the White House to your local shopping mall! 


With one of the Chanukah miracles surrounding oil, it is a custom to eat foods that have been fried in oil. Potato latkes (Hebrew for “pancakes”) are a favorite, often served with applesauce and sour cream. Sufganiyot are Israeli deep-fried jelly-filled doughnuts topped with powdered sugar, another favorite.


A popular Chanukah game, Dreidel, is beloved by Jews around the world. The four-sided spinning top features a Hebrew letter on each side, nun (נ), gimmel (ג), hei (ה), and shin (ש). A pot of small chocolate coins known as “gelt” is won and lost by the players depending on the letter landed on after the dreidel is spun.  


Some Chanukah Facts:

  • Chanukah is often spelled in countless ways, such as Hanukah, Chanuka, Chanukkah, and Hanuka. All are correct! 
  • Chanukah lasts for eight nights 
  • Chanukah is celebrated by all Jews, but gifts are usually only customarily given to children (and teenagers!) Gift-giving is an American Chanukah tradition, with little to no religious importance. 
  • Chanukah always falls in the wintertime, often before Christmas. Sometimes, it coincides with Thanksgiving, which some people like to call Thanksgivukkah! 
  • Chanukah treats include latkes (potato pancakes), powdered donuts filled with jelly, and chocolate coins from the Dreidel game 
  • Chanukah is often referred to as the “Festival of Lights” 
  • Listen to Adam Sandler’s first Chanukah parody song of four here (it debuted on Saturday Night Live in 1994):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX5Z-HpHH9g