Happy Hanukkah! But what does it mean?

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Hanukkah (sometimes spelt Chanukah) begins today and will last until Christmas Eve. The Jewish festival of lights dates back at least two centuries before the arrival of Christianity.

If you find yourself in London today, be sure to observe the Menorah lighting ceremony in Trafalgar Square, everyone is invited to enjoy some live performances, free doughnuts and more. It presents an opportunity for dialogue and education. The Menorah is displayed until December 28 so do not miss out.

Origins

Hanukkah derives from the Hebrew word for “dedication” or “inauguration”.  The origins of the story detail how the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem from the occupying Syrian Greeks (one of the most powerful armies in ancient times) in 164BC.

A three-year war ended with the rededication of the temple after it had been used to worship Greek Gods and sacrifice non-kosher pigs. Once inside the temple, an oil shortage meant they could only light the eight-branched candelabrum (menorah) for a single day.

But the miracle of the oil meant the flame shone brightly for eight days. In light of the miracle, candles are light from right to left during this celebratory period. After eight days, all the candles are lit from a separate candle (Shamash), or servant candle.

A popular children’s song during this holiday begins: “The days of Hanukkah, hanukkat mikdasheinu [the dedication of our Temple], fill our hearts with joy and gladness.”

Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish struggle for religious freedom in the face of Hellenistic oppression.

Games

A popular custom during Hanukkah is to play games and none is more popular than the driedel – a spinning top with a Hebrew letter inscribed on each of its four sides – to teach children about the great miracle.

The stakes normally involve chocolate coins but other foods are also used. The history of the driedel is rather storied and crosses cultures and languages. In modern times, some fused the toy with pop culture icon Dr Dre – and Dr Driedel was born.

Exchanging gifts or gelt (Yiddish for money) is another custom that dates back centuries. Some might receive chocolate wrapped in gold coins or cheques.

Food

Potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly-filled doughnuts (sufganiyot) are staple foods during Hanukkah. Fried foods are another reminder of the oil miracle but dairy products became popular later on.

The story of Yehudit (Judith) began in sixth century B.C. Bethulia as she beheaded the general Holofernes, who served the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar, after getting him drunk on wine and her charm. It then encouraged an Assyrian retreat.

As the story entered oral traditions, cheese was added to encourage the general to drink.

Wherever or however you choose to celebrate Hanukkah, we we say to our Jewish friends and readers, Chag Sameach.

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