The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, like the stringing of Christmas lights on trees and houses and the lighting of the Advent candles, celebrates light during the darkest time of the year. The Jewish holiday calendar is a lunar calendar, which means that the theme of light and dark can play out in the timing of the moon as well as the sun. Hanukkah always begins on the 26th of Kislev, three days before the new moon closest to the full moon that is closest to the Winter Solstice—so, at the darkest time of the moon and at the darkest time of the sun.
Most Jewish holidays are linked to a pivotal moment in Jewish history. For Hanukkah, that moment is the victory of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic overseers of the Land of Israel, who outlawed Jewish religious practices (and punished them with death) while reinstating pagan rituals. In 166 BCE, when the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem, they chose the 26th of Kislev as the day to purify and rededicate the temple, which had been desecrated three years earlier. But the temple contained only one sealed flask of oil, only enough to light the lamps for one day. Miraculously, that oil lasted for the eight days of the ceremonies.
As Arthur Waskow points out in his wonderful book on Jewish holidays, Seasons of Our Joy, the Greeks were probably celebrating a Winter Solstice ritual on that day and, by claiming the same day for their festival, the Maccabees:
were rededicating not only the Temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.
The main ritual for Hanukkah involves lighting candles in the menorah, a candelabra that contains eight candles in a row. The first candle on the right is lit on the first night (December 16 in 2014), and each night an additional candle is lit until all eight are burning. Since the lit candles are not to be used for any practical purpose, many menorahs have a space for a ninth candle, a shammas or shammash, which is set above (or below) the others and used to light them. The candles are lit just as night falls and are left to burn for half an hour.
No work is to be done while the candles are burning (just as the candles are not to be used for practical purposes). Instead, this half hour is a time for contemplation, for saying blessings and singing songs, eating special foods and playing games. In some Sephardic communities, women do not work at all on the first and eighth days of Hanukkah, and in some places they don’t work on any of the eight days. Just as the Sabbath is the day for rest provided during the week, so are the eight days of Hanukkah a time of rest at this pivotal point in the year.
Hanukkah foods are cooked in oil: potato latkes, fritters, and jam-filled doughnuts all recall the miracle of the long-lasting oil. Children play with a dreidl and are sometimes given gifts, particularly Hanukkah gelt. I’ve always loved those thin gold-foiled chocolate coins that remind me of the gifts of money so common at New Year festivals (the Romans, for instance, gave coins as New Year gifts), and certainly, with the return of light in the darkness, the new year is born.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”
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