18 Things You Never Knew About Hanukkah

There's a lot more to Hanukkah than "gifts for eight days." Here's some really cool stuff you probably didn't realize about this fun winter festival.

Closeup of a Hanukkah Menorahblueeyes/Shutterstock

Because Hanukkah and Christmas fall around the same time of year, people often wonder if Hanukkah is a Jewish version of Christmas. At least religiously speaking, it is not. Whereas Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, Hanukkah was being celebrated for centuries before Jesus was born, and it celebrates something entirely different.

The word “Hanukkah” is Hebrew for “dedication”

Hanukkah commemorates the victory in 164 B.C. of a group of Jewish people (the Maccabees) over the Syrian Greeks, who had been occupying the Land of Israel since before 167 B.C., which is when they destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and banned the practice of Judaism. After a three-year fight, the Maccabees finally liberated the Temple (along with the right of the Jewish people to practice their religion). “Dedication” refers to the rededication of the Temple upon the Maccabee’s victory, according to My Jewish Learning.

The first Hanukkah actually celebrated a different Jewish holiday

When the Maccabees prevailed over the Syrian Greeks and rededicated the Temple, they wanted to get started right away celebrating important holidays they’d missed along the way, including Sukkot, a week-long holiday that should have been celebrated in the early autumn. Despite the fact that it was now early winter, they made an exception and celebrated Sukkot. Although Sukkot was never again celebrated in the winter (it went back to being a fall holiday), the week-long Sukkot celebration formed the basic time frame for all Hanukkah celebrations thereafter (although an additional day was added, which we’re about to get to). This is why we light menorahs for Hanukkah. 

Why Hanukkah lasts for eight days

The rededication of the Temple involved turning on the lights, so to speak, and since electricity hadn’t yet been invented, people relied on oil lamps. At the time of the rededication, oil was in short supply, and there was just enough in the Temple to provide light for a single day, but miraculously, the oil continued to burn for the entire time the Jewish people were celebrating Sukkot, a total of eight days, including the dedication. Thereafter, Hanukkah has always been celebrated for eight nights. Did you know these common phrases all originated in the Bible?

There’s a reason why fried foods are on the menu for Hanukkah

The traditional foods for Hanukkah are fried because they celebrate the miracle of oil that kept the menorah lit. Some traditional foods include latkes, jelly doughnuts, and blintzes, to name a few.

The “miracle” was largely ignored for at least 250 years

The Jewish people continued to celebrate the Temple rededication annually, but it wasn’t until 250 years later that Hanukkah came to be known as a “festival of lights.” That’s when the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, referred to it as such. Some historians believe Josephus was referring not to a lighting up of lamps, but to enlightenment (as in a newly acquired freedom to worship). Either way, the notion stuck. In fact, many people associate Hanukkah more with the miracle of the oil than with the rededication of the temple.

The Hanukkah menorah came later still

The traditional Jewish menorah has seven branches—and is considered a symbol of the Jewish religion. That was the menorah used in the first Hanukkah celebration at the Temple in Jerusalem. The menorah we now use on Hanukkah is called a “Hanukkiah,” and has nine candles—one representing the original vial of oil and eight representing the days that the oil burned. It wasn’t part of Jewish practice until at least some time after Josephus first wrote about the “festival of lights.”

Menorahs don’t always go near the window

Although it’s customary to place the menorah at the window, this wasn’t always the tradition. In fact, in Mishnaic times, the menorah was placed on the left side of the door before it was forced indoors. Since the mezuzah is on the right side, placing the menorah on the left means you are surrounded by holiness. Traditions can change. Even Hanukkah wasn’t always associated with the menorah. This is why they are part of the tradition today.

Jewish holiday hannukah symbols - menorah, doughnuts, chockolate coins and wooden dreidels. Copy space background.Karaidel/Shutterstock

Dreidels weren’t just a toy

Playing with dreidels, or spinning tops is one Hanukkah tradition for all ages. The tradition itself dates back to the Greek-Syrian rule over the Holy Land. Since learning the Torah at the time was outlawed, Jewish kids would pretend to play with a dreidel instead of studying.

Why Hanukkah falls on a different date every year

Actually, it doesn’t—if you’re going by the Hebrew calendar. According to the Hebrew calendar, the rededication took place on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, 164 B.C. Every year since then, the start of Hanukkah has been on 25 Kislev. However, the Hebrew calendar is lunar, meaning it follows the moon, whereas most of the rest of the world follows a solar-based calendar, which follows the sun. Because the lunar and solar calendars don’t line up precisely, Hanukkah can fall any time from late November to late December. That’s why Hanukkah and Thanksgiving have been on the same day, along with these other double holidays.

Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible

Hanukkah is one of the few Jewish holidays not mentioned in the Five Books of Moses. Rather, the story of how Hanukkah came to be celebrated is contained within Books 1 and 2 of Maccabees, which is part of a separate set of texts called the Apocrypha.

The story of Hanukkah is part of the Christian Bible

Books 1 and 2 of Maccabees are part of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which became the template for the Christian version of the Bible.

Jesus celebrated Hanukkah

Jesus, having been born into a Jewish family more than a century after the events described in Books 1 and 2 of Maccabees, would have celebrated Hanukkah along with his fellow Jews in the first century A.D. Evidence of his having celebrated Hanukkah is in John 10:22-24, which refers to Jesus attending the Festival of Dedication in Jerusalem.

Jewish law does not require temple worship on Hanukkah

Jewish law does not require Jews to observe Hanukkah anywhere outside the home. However, many, if not most, Jewish congregations include special prayers, readings, and celebrations to celebrate Hanukkah. Here are some fantastic destinations for celebrating the festival of lights.

Money is a traditional Hanukkah gift

Although gifts are more popular today, money or “gelt” is the traditional gift of Hanukkah. Some people say that because of the rise in popularity of Christmas gifts, more Jewish people opt for gifts instead, too.

There’s no right way to spell “Hanukkah”

In English, that is. In Hebrew, it’s “חנוכה”—but since Hanukkah is a Hebrew word, and Hebrew can’t be spelled with English letters, there is no standard English spelling. Instead, it is spelled phonetically, which is open to interpretation. For example, while we are using “Hanukkah,” it’s perfectly fine to spell it “Hanukah” or “Hannukkah” or “Chanukah” or “Chanuka”…you get the point.

Image of jewish holiday Hanukkah with wooden dreidels colection (spinning top) and gold lights on the tabletomertu/Shutterstock

How to celebrate Hanukkah

Hanukkah is celebrated by playing dreidel, singing celebratory songs, exchanging gifts, eating foods that remind us of the oil that burned for eight days at the Temple in Jerusalem (jelly doughnuts, potato latkes), and lighting the Hanukkiah (while chanting specified blessings). Learn about these festive crafts to make with your kids this Hanukkah.

How to light a Hanukkiah

The Hanukkiah is designed with eight candles in a line, and a ninth candle out of line or otherwise separated from the others. That ninth candle is known as the “helper” or the “attendant” candle (in Hebrew, the “shamash”), and it’s used to light all the other candles. On the first night, one candle is placed in the spot furthest to the right, and it’s lit by the shamash, which is then placed in its designated place. Every night after that, a new candle is placed to the left of the previous candle from the night before, but the shamash lights them all, from left to right.

When to light a Hanukkiah

The Hanukkiah is generally lit after sunset, although depending on your branch within the Jewish faith, you may wait until nightfall. There are two exceptions: On Friday night, you light the Hanukkiah before sunset, and on Saturday night, you light it after nightfall. These exceptions reflect that the Hanukkiah is not to be lit during the Jewish sabbath (which begins at sunset on Friday night and ends at nightfall on Saturday). Next, read about these 32 fun facts you didn’t know about the holiday season.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.