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Hanukkah: Origin, Curiosities and Gifts Ideas

20 December on Gifts   Tags: , , , , , , ,

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If you only know of Hanukkah (or Chanukah) from the funny Adam Sandler song, you're missing out on the history of a holiday that celebrates freedom from oppression and a re-dedication of religion. The eight-day Jewish holiday, also called the Festival of Lights, commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem following the successful Maccabean Revolt, according to Also spelled hannukah, the Festival falls within November or December each year, beginning on the 25th of Kislev using the Hebrew calendar.

Holiday Origins

During the second century B.C. the Jews lived under oppression from the Greek-Syrians. The Second Temple played host to a successful revolt that freed the Jews to worship their God again. In approximately 200 B.C., Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria, took control of Judea. Antiochus III, a pagan who worshipped the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses, allowed the Jews to continue to worship as they had, however, his heir, Antiochus IV Epiphanes forced the Jews into pagan worship and outlawed their religion. In 168 B.C. his army invaded Jerusalem and massacred thousands of Jews. His soldiers desecrated the Second Temple by building an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within the Temple.

A holy man, Jewish priest Mattathias, and his five sons led a rebellion against the Syrians. Using guerilla warfare over a period of years, the Jews eventually drove back the Syrians. Although Mattathias died in 166 B.C., one of his sons, Judah Maccabee (the Hammer), continued to lead the fight. The Festival of Lights commemorates the battle and a miracle that occurred at the rededication of the Second Temple. According to the Talmud, Judah Maccabee and his people rebuilt the altar and lit its menorah to rededicate their temple to God. The menorah's seven candles represent knowledge and creation. It should be kept burning every night. Judah only had enough untainted olive oil to keep the flames burning for one night. The miracle that occurred was that the oil replenished itself so that the flames burned for eight nights - until more holy oil was located.

The events occurred after the writing of the Torah, but the Talmud recounts the events. The Bible also mentions the Festival of Lights in the New Testament. Jesus attended a celebration commemorating the revolt, referred to in the Bible as the "Feast of Dedication."


The Festival of Lights includes many traditions including the nightly lighting of the menorah, holiday foods, exchanging gifts each night, and playing with the traditional toy, the dreidel. During the holiday, the menorah is commonly displayed in the front window. Each night after sundown, the celebrant lights the nine candle menorah using the ninth candle, the shamash or "helper" candle. The first night, the celebrant(s) lights only one candle with the shamash. Each consecutive night, the celebrant adds one candle. During the lighting ceremony, celebrants recite blessings and pray.

To celebrate the miracle of the oil through food, the holiday traditional foods are fried. Two popular dishes include latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly filled donuts).

Chanukah also features an exchange of gifts on each of its eight nights. Although some joke that it is in competition with the Christian celebration of Christmas, the giving of gifts during the holiday came from European Jews.

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Gifts: Then & Now

Traditionally, Jews exchanged gifts at Purim, according to scholar Eliezer Segal, but European Jews began giving gifts of gelt (money) to their children's religious teachers. Religious practice prohibited accepting payment for teaching the Torah, so European Jews used the holiday as a means to present a gift of money. Although not documented, scholars including Segal believe that Jewish children then clamored for their own gift of money.

In modern times, the gelt exchanged is in the form of chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. The hanukkah gifts exchanged also range from traditional choices like dreidels to funny gifts like themed t-shirts or home items. Themes range from items covered in menorahs or dreidels to the recipients favorite cat or dog breed. If you've been invited to a Hanukkah celebration by a dog lover, for instance, you might choose one of the labradoodle gifts at Idakoos. Gift exchange goes beyond gelt now and you can make it fun and meaningful.

Chanukah celebrates a joyous end to a long era of religious persecution and war. The miracle of the oil provides the basis for its eight-day length. The Festival of Lights provides opportunities to celebrate religious freedom and God's deliverance through its ceremonies, foods, games, and gifts for friends and family.

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