1. Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas: Hanukkah and Christmas both occur near the winter solstice. They both feature light and gift-giving.
Yet, they differ in their relative importance and religious messages. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of Jewish survival in the face of foreign pressure. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus. Hanukkah is relatively minor holiday in Judaism. Christmas is highly significant for Christians of all denominations.
2. There is no one Hanukkah story: The most popular explanation of Hanukkah centers around a tiny container of oil that miraculously burns for eight days. This explanation highlights the spiritual legacy of the holiday.
The original story of Hanukkah, however, is found in the ancient Book of Maccabees. It describes a great military victory of the Jewish people over King Antiochus and his army, which was followed by an eight-day celebration. This explanation highlights the military dimension of the holiday.
3. Hanukkah is lots of fun: While every Hanukkah celebration is accompanied by the lighting of candlese, all families celebrate differently. Some give presents each night. Others do different types of community service. Others dedicate each night to teaching about a different period of Jewish history.
4. Hanukkah has special foods: Come into a Jewish home on Hanukkah, and you’ll likely smell fried potatoes. Known as “latkes,” they taste like a cominbation of hashbrowns and tater tots.
In Israel people eat donuts on Hanukkah. The connecting thread is the oil, reminding us of the miracle that occured two thousand years ago.
5. Light is a powerful symbol: Both Hanukkah and Christmas feature light. The Christmas tree is lit up, and Hanukkah candles are kindled evening.
In Judaism light symbolizes God. The candle symbolizes human beings, through whom God brings light to the world.
6. Hanukkah teaches the value of Shalom Bayit, “Peace in the Home.” Song, food and light bring families together. Every generation is engaged and connected.
Children play games, adults cook and teach, grandparents discuss the different ways they have celebrated Hanukkah. The home becomes a miniature temple, a place of sacredness.
7. Hanukkah celebrates religious freedom: The Hanukkah story begins with the Hellenistic rulers of Palestine forcing Jews to abandon their religious practices. The Jewish revolt was motivated by their belief in the right and need to practice their religion freely. Their message continues to inspire those who fight for religious freedom today.
8. There is no one right way to spell Hanukkah: Some people prefer, as I do, Hanukkah with an “H.” Others spell it “Chanukkah.”
The reason for the variety is that no English letter has the exact same sound as the first letter in the original Hebrew word. Every translation and transliteration from Hebrew is an interpretation.
I think this variety is good. Hanukkah celebrates freedom, and we have the freedom to spell it any way we’d like.