Chanukah, the Jewish festival of light, takes place in early winter each year, often coinciding with the Christmas period. How do families celebrate Chanukah? Why? And why does it come in so many different spellings? Our family guide has all the answers.
What Is Chanukah?
Chanukah is the Jewish festival of lights, which spans eight days each November or December, dictated by the lunar calendar. It is unrelated to Christmas, but usually coincides with the festivities. In 2020 Chanukah begins on the evening of Thursday 10 December and ends on the evening of Friday 18 December.
Why Is Chanukah Celebrated?
The word Chanukah means rededication, and that gives a clue as to its origins. The festival marks events that took place over 2,000 years ago, when -- in simple terms -- Jews in Jerusalem regained independence from the Seleucids (an Asian regime with Greek origins). Their first act was to cleanse and rededicate the Second Temple, in which a symbolic menorah was lit. It burned for eight days despite only having enough sacred oil for one day. Jews have since celebrated the miracle of the flame over an eight-day period.
How Is Chanukah Celebrated?
Chanukah is considered a relatively minor festival among the religious, but it has become a major cultural event among secular Jews. As with Christmas, it is celebrated in a variety of ways, and different families have their own traditions. A universal practice is to light one candle on a menorah for each of the eight evenings, lighting from right to left in the same manner as Hebrew is read. Gift- or money-giving is also widespread. Festivities usually take place at home and among family, but Chanukah gatherings and public celebrations have become increasingly common -- for example, the lighting of a menorah each year in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Another tradition sees children playing with small spinning tops called dreidels (pictured below). This custom is a symbol of defiance from the time of the Seleucids. Jewish children would pretend to play with dreidels whenever they saw a patrol approaching. The harmless game would hide the fact that they’d been studying Torah together, a forbidden activity.
What Is Eaten At Chanukah?
Cooking is another important part of Chanukah, and families often spend more time in the kitchen. Fried foods, including potato fritters called latkes and a type of doughnut called sufganiyot (pictured), are part of the tradition. Cooking with oil is a symbolic reminder of the miracle of the menorah in the Temple.
Latkes are a cinch to make, and every family has its own variation. Here’s the basic method:
- Grate (or whiz in the food processor) three medium potatoes and one onion.
- Squeeze the liquid out of the mixture, or pat it dry with a clean dishcloth.
- Bind the mixture together with a beaten egg, and also throw in some breadcrumbs or matzo meal.
- Separate the mixture into fat discs about the diameter of a mug.
- Fry on both sides until golden. You can use any oil you like, or rendered chicken fat (chicken schmaltz), or a combination of both.
The recipe can be varied by adding spices, herbs, flavourings or anything else you fancy. They’re good with sour cream or apple sauce.
Why the Various Spellings?
Chanukah is, or course, a Hebrew word. But Hebrew uses a different alphabet to English. If we’re to write it in English, the word must be transliterated. Choices have to be made about which English letters to use in place of the Hebrew letters. The first letter of Chanukah is a het, whose nearest English equivalent is an ‘h’. However, its pronunciation is closer to the ch in the Scottish loch. Hence, Chanukah sometimes begins with a C and sometimes with an H, and neither is incorrect. In fact, over 20 spelling variations of Chanukah are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. While that may be a little confusing, it does mean you’d be hard pressed to spell the festival incorrectly!
What’s Happening for Chanukah 2020?
It goes without saying that most public celebrations of Chanukah have been cancelled this year, or else greatly restricted. While menorahs will be lit at important locations, these will be low-key affairs without crowds. You’re best off staying home in the family bubble thing and having a thoroughly traditional Chanukah. Some cultural venues are putting on digital events. Among the more notable is London’s Jewish Museum, which will stream a series of eight Digital Nights of Hanukah Object Talks, along with morning cookery streams that’ll show you how to make latkes and doughnuts.
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