Hanukkah – Why It Is Not the Jewish Christmas

For many people, Hanukkah is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. But in truth, similarities between the two festivals end with the fact that they are both celebrated in December. Other than that, they are unrelated and are probably only as similar as Mardi Gras is to Good Friday. So, what exactly is Hanukkah and why is it celebrated? To answer this, we need to delve a little into history.

The History

Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is a celebration that marks eight days and nights full of singing, feasting and merry-making. Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. In the Gregorian calendar, Hanukkah falls sometime between early and mid-December. The word Hanukkah is derived from a Hebrew verb that stands for ‘dedicate.’ This festival is celebrated to commemorate the success of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BC. During this time, the Jewish warriors led by Judah Maccabee, the hero of the story, revolted against the Syrian monarch, King Antiochus. The monarch had tried to wipe out Judaism by enforcing the Greek way of life in Israel. To achieve that, he had destroyed the holy temple and put pagan statues in it. This evoked strong sentiments from the Jews that ultimately resulted in the revolt. Hanukkah celebrates the success of the Maccabees in reoccupying the holy temple and rededicating it to god.

The Miracle

After the temple was recaptured by the Maccabees, they decided to purify it as it had been defiled by the Syrian Greeks. To do that, they decided to burn ritual oil in the temple for eight days. However, they found oil that was sufficient to keep the eternal light lit for only one day. Nonetheless, they lit the oil and miraculously, it stayed lit for eight days and eight nights. Ever since then, Jews have been celebrating the miracle every year by lighting a special candelabrum known as the menorah orhanukkiyah for eight days. The menorah has eight branches, four on each side with a ninth distinctive one in the middle which is a little higher or lower than the rest. The one in the middle is known as the ‘Shamash.’ Each night, after dark, one candle of the candelabrum is lit by the family and is kept burning for at least an hour. All the eight candles are lit by the last day of Hanukkah, using the Shamash to help light the rest. This signifies the victory of light over dark, both literally and metaphorically.

The Gifting Tradition

Unlike Christmas, there isn’t one big Hanukkah present that people get on this holiday. Instead, there are eight gifts for each day of the festival! Whether these are big or small gifts depend on your budget but the very act of getting something every day is special. While traditionally, one gift is given to each member of the family on each day, you can spice things up a little and make a mound of gifts for each member and have them pick out one every day.

Decorations and Customs

Move over Christmas tree, the Hanukkah bush is here to liven things up. Traditionally, the bush is decorated with white and blue fairy lights. Other Hanukkah traditions include playing the dreidel spinning game and feasting on Jewish fare that includes eating latkes (potato pancakes fried in oil). You can include other traditional Jewish food like matzoh (unleavened bread), hamantaschen (triangle-shaped cookies) etc. The internet is your playground for recipes, both traditional and inventive. Though not as popular as Christmas carols, it is fairly easy to get hold of some Hanukkah songs too so go ahead and make the atmosphere as festive as you can.

With the countdown to Christmas beginning as early as a month in advance, it is easy for a festival like Hanukkah to get lost in the hullabaloo. But if you are determined to help your kids stay close to their roots, go ahead and make Hanukkah special this year (to be celebrated from December 8 to December 16). Feel free to tweak and twist the rituals here and there to suit your family but make it a point to read out the story to them. Before you know it, Hanukkah just might become the festival to look forward to each year!

Additional information

Your account hasn't been activated yet. Please activate it through the gameplay permission email we sent you.


The email has been sent to you.