Each year, Jews around the world celebrate an eight-day winter holiday known as Hanukkah (also spelled “Chanukah” and several other ways) on the 25th day of the month of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, typically falling in November or December on the Gregorian calendar.
Hanukkah has ancient roots, commemorating the second century B.C.E. reclaiming and rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem following a period of Greek-Syrian occupation and desecration of the holy place, according to ancient Hebrew texts like the Talmud and the books of the Maccabees. In fact, Hanukkah means “dedication.” And like many religious and cultural celebrations and rituals, those associated with Hanukkah have changed over time.
“Hanukkah became more prominent in medieval Europe, when Jews were intermingling with Christians in close quarters,” says Rabbi Joseph Skloot, assistant professor of modern Jewish intellectual history at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. “Seeing Christians celebrate Christmas with such pageantry, and symbols that are so evocative, Jews sought to exalt their symbols during that same time.”
Over the next several centuries, Jews brought Hanukkah traditions with them as they migrated and resettled across the globe, including to what is now the United States. “Hanukkah in America is a joyful, light-filled festival celebrated by many Jewish families during the darkest days of December,” says Rabbi Douglas Sagal of Congregation B'Nai Israel in Rumson, New Jersey. Here are the origins and meanings behind several Hanukkah traditions, as celebrated in America.
Lighting a Menorah
Back in the second century, after a small band of Jewish warriors known as the Maccabees managed to overthrow the Greek-Syrians and reclaim the ancient temple in Jerusalem, they found a single container of oil: enough to keep the candelabrum (also known as a “menorah” or a “Hanukkiyah”) lit for one day, Skloot explains. Instead, the oil lasted for eight days, in what is now referred to as the “Hanukkah miracle.”
According to Sagal, lighting a menorah has been the primary ritual of Hanukkah for at least 1,800 years. “It appears from early sources that originally, only one candle was lit to mark the rededication of the Temple and the kindling of the sacred menorah,” he explains. “Eventually, it became the practice to light eight candles, one each night of the eight-day festival, to recall the miracle that the sacred lamp oil lasted for eight days.”
Since that shift, menorahs have had nine branches to accommodate the eight candles, as well as one used to light the others.
Displaying a Lit Menorah
One of the essential aspects of the celebration, Skloot says, is publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah, when one day’s worth of oil provided eight days of light. “The practice of placing the Hanukkiyah in the window of one's home after it's lit is a way of announcing to the world that this extraordinary miracle took place,” he explains.
And while most Hanukkah rituals take place in the home, over the last decade, Skloot says that some communities have been holding public menorah lighting ceremonies alongside those for Christmas trees.
“This seems to be a particularly American phenomenon,” he notes, “and a sign of the broader acceptance of Jews in American public life.”
Along with the menorah, a simple toy top known as a “dreidel” is one of the most-recognizable items associated with Hanukkah. But this hasn’t always been the case.
Though there are plenty of stories placing dreidels in ancient times, according to scholars, they are more folklore than fact. It’s unclear where or when playing dreidel originated, but historians point out that it didn’t make an appearance in Jewish writings until the 18th century. By then, European Jews had likely adapted the game from similar ones played in Christian, German-speaking parts of the continent.
The four sides of a dreidel are each marked with a different letter—which, in German, are: G for “ganz” (all), H for “halb” (half), N for “nischt” (nothing) and S for “schict” (put)—and dictates whether the person who spun the top should take all, half, or none of the coins in the collective pot, or put their own in.
Because Yiddish is closely related to German, the four original letters continued to serve as the instructions for the game. They also happen to be the first letters of the words in the Yiddish phrase “nes gadol haya sham,” or “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the story of Hanukkah, where one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days.
Giving Out Gelt
One of the earliest mentions of giving people gelt (the Yiddish word for “money”) during Hanukkah came in the 16th century, and referred to the Italian and Sefardic tradition of collecting money to buy or make clothing for poor pupils in the local schools. By the 19th century, Jews in Eastern Europe started giving coins directly to children in their family as Hanukkah gifts, in what was likely an interpretation of the earlier custom. Those who immigrated to America brought the tradition with them.
In the 1920s, American confectioners like New York-based Loft’s Candies began producing Hanukkah gelt made of chocolate and wrapped in gold foil, which has remained its primary form since.
“The chocolate coins often have Jewish symbols from the Maccabees and the ancient temple impressed upon them,” says Skloot, noting that they’re also used when playing dreidel.
Singing Hanukkah Songs
Though they don’t get the same airplay as Christmas music, there is no shortage of Hanukkah songs. “There's a whole genre,” says Skloot. “There are religious songs, silly songs, songs from different Jewish traditions.”
According to Skloot, one of the most famous Hanukkah songs is called “Maoz Tzur,” which was originally written as a poem and is now sung as a song of praise. Other examples include “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,” and yes, “I Have a Little Dreidel.”
Along with the traditional tunes, new Hanukkah songs have been written and recorded in more modern times. “Very famously, Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded a song called ‘Light One Candle,’ which takes the Hanukkah story of the Maccabees in their fight for their freedom, and then extrapolates it in praise of other freedom fighters of the 20th century,” Skloot notes.
Eating Foods Cooked in Oil
American celebrations of Hanukkah typically include dishes cooked in oil, which Skloot says is another way to commemorate the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days.
While that’s a wide category, there are two "core foods" eaten during Hanukkah in the United States, Skloot says. The first is potato pancakes, which are called “latkes” in Yiddish, and have traditionally been served by Northern European and Eastern European Jews, according to Skloot. “Doughnuts of various kinds are commonly eaten by Jews from other regions,” he adds.
Gift-giving hasn’t always been associated with Hanukkah. According to Skloot, it has traditionally been done as part of another Jewish holiday known as Purim, which is linked to Hanukkah, and takes place in the spring. But that began to change around the 1880s, when American Jews began adopting the Christmas custom.
By the early 20th century, the Yiddish press was running articles and ads encouraging immigrants to buy Hanukkah presents for children. And when postwar commercialism transformed and increased gift-giving for Christmas, it had a similar effect on Hanukkah presents. “Now, there’s a tradition that children in some families get a present for every night of the holiday,” Skloot adds.
Eating cheese blintzes, cheesecake, and other dairy foods have long been associated with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which takes place in the late spring or early summer. But the lesser-known tradition of consuming dairy on Hanukkah has been gaining attention and traction over the past several years.
“It is customary in some Jewish households to eat dairy foods in memory of the legendary brave heroine Judith, who tempted the wicked General Holofernes with dairy foods, and then lured him to his death, saving the Jewish nation,” Sagal explains.
It’s not difficult to understand why eating cheese to honor a woman known for her bravery has taken off in the 21st century. In fact, modern technology likely had a hand in the practice’s revival.
"This is an example, I think, of the way the internet in recent years—like printing beforehand—has led to the popularization and rediscovery of less common practices and traditions,” Skloot explains. “Once something is cited in one article, especially a tradition with as venerable a medieval pedigree as this one, it goes viral."