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21 Facts To Know About Hanukkah: An FAQ For Non-Jews

Ah, Hanukkah. Or Chanukah. Hannukah? Let's answer all your burning questions about the Festival of Lights!

Tonight marks the beginning of Hanukkah, a holiday that's a joy for little Jewish boys and girls across the world... and a conundrum for many other people. (Or "chunnundrum.") You want to learn more about the holiday, but you don't want to ask questions that may sound insensitive.

No problem! As someone who spent eight years in Hebrew school -- including the days I forgot my Game Boy and actually had to pay attention -- I'm happy to help with non-Jews' top queries about Hanukkah.

How the hell do you spell it?

Honestly? Follow your heart. It's a confusing topic, mostly because you're trying to transliterate a Hebrew word into a language that is constructed in a totally different way with different sounds. Google autocorrects to "Hanukkah," which is also in the AP Stylebook.

Personally I prefer "Hannukah," but I think it's like string cheese: Some people peel it off, some bite it, and some like the cheddar/mozzarella combo.

When is it? And why does it change every year?

This year, it starts at sundown on December 16th, and goes until sundown on December 24th (coincidentally, Christmas Eve). It changes every year because the Hebrew calendar is lunar (technically lunisolar), while the Gregorian (or Western) calendar is straight-up solar. Last year, Hanukkah was on Thanksgiving; this year, it ends the day Christmas begins. In 2016, it starts on Christmas Eve, which is super great for mixed families and lazy holiday party throwers.

Is Hanukkah super important?

"NOT REALLY!" hisses the Jewish cat. If you were to rank the Jewish holidays by importance, Hanukkah is way down the list. It's not as religiously significant as Yom Kippur (the day Jews apologize), or quite as historic as Passover (when we celebrate escaping Egypt by not eating pasta for a week).

So it's not the Jewish Christmas?

"Not really!" says the weird Christmas menorah (we'll explain menorahs in a minute). Again, it's an importance thing: Christmas is basically the most important Christian holiday besides Easter. For Jews, Hanukkah is, like, ninth-most. There are similarities, though: Christmas celebrates the miracle of Jesus' birth, while Hanukkah celebrates a different miracle (we're getting there too).

Jewish kids get presents on Hanukkah just like Christian kids get presents on Christmas, but that's a pretty late addition to the Hanukkah tradition. Jewish kids in America get Hanukkah gifts, but Jewish kids in the rest of the world tend to get coins instead. Oh yeah, we'll talk about coins later.

Ok, so what IS Hanukkah?

"Glad you asked," says the Jewish T-Rex. Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean Rebellion, and the destruction/rededication of the Holy Temple. A group of Jews called the Maccabees, led by Judah Maccabee, fought off a giant army of Seleucid for control of Jerusalem. The Seleucid were basically ancient Syrians, who were technically Greeks -- NOT Romans, who also persecuted Jews. And NOT Babylonians, who also persecuted Jews. And NOT... well, the list goes on forever.

Anyway, this all happened around 160 years before the birth of Jesus. Once the Seleucids were chased out, the Jews went about rebuilding and re-holy-ing the Holy Temple.

What about the candle stuff? I like the candles!

Andrew Ratto/Flickr


Right. So the Maccabees are rebuilding the destroyed temple, and need to light candles for holiness. They find a tiny jug of oil, barely enough to last one night. But that tiny amount of oil lasted for eight full nights, which was enough time for the Jews to find more oil. It was a miracle! Not quite as miraculous as Moses parting the Red Sea, but probably more of a miracle than finding $20 in your old jeans.

Starting to see why this isn't the most important Jewish holiday?

Is there a Hanukkah Harry?



How about a Hanukkah Armadillo?!



Also, no. It's not really a mascot holiday, y'know?

Wait, what's the candleholder called?

Getty Images

Pope Francis Visit To The Holy Land - Day Two

Depends on which one you mean. The one above is called a "menorah." Count the arms: Seven total. It's a pretty standard candleholder in synagogues across the world, for use on the Sabbath or, like, if it's way dark and your phone is out of battery.

A chanukia is the menorah for use on Hanukkah (see T-Rex above). It has nine arms: eight for each night the miracle oil burned, and one for the shamash, which is the "helper" candle. The shamash is typically higher than the other candles, and is the one you light first. Then, each night at sundown you use the shamash to light the other candles right-to-left (just like reading Hebrew). You restart every night: night one, you light the candle on the far right. Night two, you light the candle on the far right and the one next to it. Night three, you light the candle on the far right, then the second, then the third. And so on and so forth.

There are also some prayers you say while you light the candles -- ask (almost) any Jewish person on earth and they can recite them like the lyrics to the "Fresh Prince" theme song.

Is this the holiday where you don’t eat?

Hellllll no. Jews love fasting for various holidays, but Hanukkah is a decidedly meal-based holiday. And then we eat donuts.


Yes, jelly donuts. Basically, the menu for Hanukkah is anything fried. Specifically in oil, to celebrate that miraculous eight-day oil again.

Latkes are a popular Hanukkah treat: basically fried potato pancakes that usually come with applesauce or sour cream on the side. They're technically gluten-free if you don't use flour, but if you're not eating carbs, you can try zucchini latkes instead.

The jelly donuts are sufganiyah, also fried in oil, and they date way way back in Jewish history. We eat them because they symbolize... being delicious?

What about the dreidel?

It's a spinning top. "Dreidel" itself is a Yiddish word, which is based on the German word drehen, which means "to turn." Yiddish is the Girl Talk of languages, in that it's a mashup of Hebrew and Yiddish. In Hebrew, it's called a sevivon, which means "dreidel." Confused yet?

They originated back in those Maccabbean times. Jews weren't allowed to teach Torah or learn about Judaism, so when the Syrians would drop by, the Rabbis would tell their kids to hide the books and pull out the dreidels. 2,000 years later, Jewish kids still use dreidels as a way to avoid doing work.

Are dreidels made from clay?

It's 2014. They're plastic.

How do you play dreidel?

It's basically the Jewish version of rollin' bones. Everyone starts with some coins, or candy, or raisins, or straight-up GOLD BARS if you're a boss. You take turns spinning the dreidel, which has four different Hebrew letters on it. If it lands on נ (nun), you get nothing. If it lands on ה (hei), you get half the coins. If you get ש (shin), you have to add coins to the pile. If you get ג (gimel), you win it all.

If your dreidel keeps spinning forever, then you're in "Inception."

Is there a professional hipster dreidel league?

Yeah, of course.

What are those chocolate coins?

They're called "gelt," and they replaced the coin-gifting of yore, which is an ancient tradition designed to teach Jewish children about fiscal responsibility. Yeah, that's a stereotype, but in this case it has a basis in reality. (And it works -- my checkbook STAYS balanced.)

Anyway, the chocolate coins popped up around 1920 or so. Why chocolate coins? Besides being delicious, chocolate coins combine the two main edicts of all Jewish parents: Be careful with money, and you should eat something, you're too skinny!

Do you really get a present every night?

Again, presents are not integral to Hanukkah in the way they are to Christmas. But generally speaking, Jewish kids in America get presents. In my house (where all I wanted was LEGO) I was given a choice: Eight small presents, or one big one. One year I negotiated to four medium presents, and rejoiced when I got four large LEGO sets instead. Another Hanukkah miracle!

Do you put gifts under the menorah like with a Christmas tree?

No, that's a fire hazard.

Is that Adam Sandler song true? Hall of Famer Rod Carew is Jewish? Kirk AND Spock? What about the J.J. Abrams reboots?

K calm down. In order: No, Hall of Famer Rod Carew is NOT Jewish. Yes, Kirk and Spock are Jewish, if you mean William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. No, Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine are not.

Why do some Jews celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah?

Well, some kids are raised with both Jewish and Christian parents. Some kids just enjoy the smell of Christmas trees (seriously, they smell amazing and we're very jealous). Some kids are just greedy and want double presents.

By the way, can you BELIEVE how many cats are celebrating Hanukkah on the internet?

Why do you hate Santa?

We don't hate him at all. We just learn that he's not real a few years before you do.