6 Hanukkah Traditions That Make the 8-Night Holiday Special

The Festival of Lights promises flavors, songs, and games that delight in a celebration that dates back thousands of years.

Hanukkah is a joyous Jewish holiday that recalls an ancient miracle after a hard-fought victory over religious oppression. In the first century CE, Greek rulers banned the practice of Judaism. They tortured and persecuted those who dared and desecrated the holy Second Temple in Jerusalem, even sacrificing a pig and installing a statue of Zeus inside. A small band of Jewish warriors, led by Judah Maccabee, rebelled. When the battle was won, the Maccabees set out to rededicate the Temple, which involved lighting a menorah (a seven-branched candelabra) that would burn continuously. Though they scoured the Temple, they found only enough oil to burn for one night. Miraculously, it burned for eight nights, which gave the Maccabees time to find more so they could keep the Temple holy.

Today, Hanukkah celebrates that miracle and, by extension, the triumph of light over darkness. Those themes are evident in many of the most beloved Hanukkah traditions. Here is how Hanukkah and other holidays might look different in 2020.

Lighting the Hanukkah candles

To commemorate the oil that miraculously lasted for eight days, modern-day Jewish families recite blessings and light candles on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. Candles are placed in a special candelabra, called a menorah, or sometimes a hanukkiah, with the number of lights increasing each night. On the first night, one candle (plus a “helper” candle, called the shamash) is lit. On the second night, two candles plus the shamash are lit, and so on, until nine candles are blazing on the final night. This is why Hanukkah is often called the “festival of lights.” Families usually place lit menorahs in a window, following the guidance in the Talmud to “publicize the miracle.” Find out more about why we light menorahs for Hanukkah.

Eating potato pancakes and jelly donuts

Walk into a Jewish kitchen during Hanukkah and you’re likely to inhale the delicious aromas of latkes or potato-and-onion pancakes fried in oil. If you’re especially lucky, sufganiyot, or jelly-filled donuts, will also be on the menu. These decadent Jewish delicacies—along with other fried foods—symbolize the miracle of the oil. While latkes are more traditional, sufganiyot only became popular in the 20th century, when Israel promoted them as part of the country’s official Hanukkah celebration. Beginning in the 1970s, American Jews began adopting the delicious Hanukkah tradition.

Playing dreidel games

A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top used in games of chance during Hanukkah. Each of the four sides has a Hebrew letter carved or stamped on it. The letters—nun, gimel, hey, and shin—are the first initials in the Hebrew words “ness gadol haya sham,” meaning “a great miracle happened there.” Today, when players spin the top, they win or lose gambling pieces—often small bits of candy—according to the letter they land on.

Kids (and even some adults) have been playing dreidel at Hanukkah for centuries. No one is entirely sure how it all started. Theories range from the game being a way for young Jewish scholars to distract and trick Greek soldiers if they were caught illegally studying scripture, to being based on a German game called trendel, which itself was based on an Irish game known as teetotum.

Hanukkah gelt

Jewish children look forward to receiving small discs of chocolate at Hanukkah, usually wrapped in gold- or silver-colored foil to resemble coins. Known as gelt, they’re sometimes used for betting during dreidel games, but often just enjoyed as a treat.

Historically, however, gelt was anything but kid stuff. In Eastern Europe, Jewish families would give a few extra coins to teachers, butchers, and other independent workers during Hanukkah, as a sort of end-of-year tip. By the late 1800s, when survival was less fraught, families began giving small tokens to their children at Hanukkah.

However, some scholars say the Hanukkah tradition of giving gelt evolved earlier. The Talmud (one of the central texts in Judaism) states that if a person cannot afford both Hanukkah lights and wine for the Sabbath, then the lights take precedence, according to Rabbi Norman Patz, rabbi emeritus of Temple Sholom of West Essex, in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and visiting rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Giving gelt ensured that even the poorest people could light the Hanukkah menorah.

Gifts

Perhaps as an outgrowth of the gelt tradition, Hanukkah is a customary time to make donations, or tzedakah, to nonprofits and other charitable organizations. In recent years, the sixth night of Hanukkah has become the designated time for families to make their gifts. Gifts can be monetary, but can also include gifts of time as a volunteer.

It’s also become popular for members of Jewish families to exchange gifts with each other, much like Christians do at Christmas, but it wasn’t always that way. The Hanukkah tradition didn’t really take off until the 1950s post-Holocaust era when promoting a positive Jewish identity to children became important. And as Christmas became increasingly commercialized, Jewish parents felt the need to offer something equivalent to their kids. While customs vary among families, many exchange one small gift for each of the first seven nights, with a bigger gift on the eighth night. Others buy something that can be used or experienced by the whole family, like a vacation. Should you chose to give, these are 25 of the best Hannukah gifts.

Family time

Unlike many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is celebrated primarily in the home, rather than in the synagogue. “It’s a home holiday. There’s no synagogue ritual for it,” Rabbi Patz says. In fact, the language in the Talmud mentions a “candle for each man and his household,” making the actual commandment one of celebrating at home with family.

In addition to cooking and eating fried foods, playing dreidels, and lighting candles together, many families also sing songs for the holiday. Popular choices include “Maoz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”) and “I Have a Little Dreidel.” Read on for 18 more fascinating Hanukkah facts.

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Laurie Budgar
Laurie Budgar is a certified speech-language pathologist (MS, CCC/SLP) who spent over a decade helping people with brain trauma, stroke, MS and Alzheimer’s regain language, speech, swallowing and cognitive skills. She contributes regularly to RD.com, where she writes about health, pets and travel. Previously, she was the editor at Momentum, the magazine of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Under her direction, the magazine won its first-ever Folio awards for best complete issue and best article. She has covered health, nutrition and lifestyle topics for Healthline, Parenting, LIVESTRONG.com, Delicious Living, Natural Solutions and more. She has written about travel destinations and profiled small businesses for AAA Colorado, American Way, the University of Denver and Fortune Small Business.