Happy Hanukkah guys! This year Hanukkah started at sundown this past Saturday, December 8th. Because my father is Jewish and my mother is Catholic, we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. Pretty cool, huh? Some of you might be thinking lucky ducks because my brother and I get presents for both (I know we’ve heard it a lot from our friends over the years) but it’s actually about more than just getting a ton of stuff. I know, shocker right? A teen–well, okay, I guess now I’m a “young adult”– who isn’t obsessed with the material aspects of the holidays? Has hell frozen over? Nope. For those who have just looked out the window to see if pigs are flying, I’m sorry to inform you that you will be sorely disappointed.
For me, the holidays have always been about family. Being able to spend time with family and friends, catching up and just enjoying each other’s company–that’s really what the holidays should be about. That’s why I love when we have Thanksgiving at my aunt and uncle’s house in Culver, IN. Because the atmosphere is so nice and warm and full of laughter and it’s a chance for us to see family that we don’t see all the time. It also helps that I absolutely love that house. But I digress.
Last year was a unique year for the four of us. Why? Because I’m pretty sure that it was the first year that we were actually with my dad’s family during Hanukkah. And that was great. It was different because we didn’t do some of the things that we normally did like lighting the menorah (I don’t think the hotel would’ve been too pleased) and Christmas was definitely celebrated in a new way (the two holidays overlapped last year) but I think seeing everyone made up for that. Dad’s immediate family lives in Arizona and Utah so we spent the week in Arizona and my aunt and uncle flew down from Utah. I can tell you it was interesting to see cacti trussed up in Christmas lights instead of Christmas trees! Christmas day itself was also interesting. Mom, Jared, and I went to a sunrise mass (Jared wasn’t overly pleased–he likes his sleep. At home we usually go to midnight mass.) and after we opened envelopes that held pictures of the gifts waiting for us at home. I thought that was really nice of Mom to do because it meant that we still got to open something on Christmas Day even if we weren’t home. Because a lot of the people in my aunt’s community are also Jewish, we had what we jokingly called a “Jewish Christmas” meaning that in the afternoon we went to a movie with my aunt and went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner with some of my aunt and uncle’s friends.
This year in particular, Hanukkah will be a new experience because I won’t be home during any of it. So I’ll miss out on the menorah, the latkas, the gelt, and playing dreidel with friends. Because we live in the south of the US, we live right smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt. This means that not many of our friends know much about Hanukkah at all except for the “eight days of presents and you light a candle”. In high school (and still now on occaison) my brother and I would have game nights with some of our mutual friends. It started out as bowling night, but then evolved into poker night and now it’s just game night. One year, we decided to have a hanukkah-styled game night so our friends could learn how to play dreidel and try latkas. Not many of them were fans of the latkas (I personally love them) but all seemed to like dreidel. We’ve done Hanukkah game night twice more since then I think.
Alright, so I’m sure most of you guys have at least heard of Hanukkah but unless you are Jewish, have Jewish friends, or just like world religions, I bet a lot of you don’t really know much about the holiday and are probably wondering what the heck are latkas and why do they light candles? Latkas are basically small potato pancakes. At least, that’s how people generally refer to them seeing as they are made out of potatoes and look like these smallish circlular patties. Most people top them with either applesauce or sour cream. I personally like both so I alternate as I please. They’re also good hot or cold. Dreidel is a game played with a four-sided spinning top called a dreidel or, if you speak Hebrew, sevivon. Each side has a different symbol on it. The four symbols are nun, hey, gimmel, and shin. Everyone has a handful of markers (we typically use beans or M&Ms) and before each game, each player puts a marker in the middle. Then, one by one players take turns spinning their dreidel. What the player does depends on what symbol lands face up. Nun is none, so the player would do nothing. Shin means the player would have to add another marker to the middle (we remember it by saying shin put one in). If you land on hey, you get half the pot and if you get gimmel you win the whole thing. Pretty simple. Once the pot is gone, everyone puts another marker in the middle and the game begins again. Once you run out of markers, you’re out unless you can convince someone to give you some of theirs.
Now for a mini-history lesson. I’ll try to not sound like your history teacher from school but no promises. Alright, so I know a lot of people know that during Hanukkah we light a candle each night for eight nights. This, I think, is more or less common knowledge. What some people may not know though is that it dates back to the second century B.C. During this time Judea was under Antiochus III and Syrian control but Jews were still allowed to practice their religion. Antiochus III’s son, Antiochus IV, was not as understanding when he took over and outlawed Judaism, ordering them to instead worship the Greek gods. Obviously, the Jews weren’t too happy about this latest developpement causing a rebellion (sometimes referred to as the Maccabean Revolt). And this is where Judah Maccabee comes in. He took over leading the resistance after his father was killed and helped drive the Syrians out of Judea. The first thing they did once the fighting was over was to set about cleaning up the Second Temple (the first had been destroyed in…500 or 600 BC I think but don’t quote me on the date) as it had been hit hard during the fighting. And now we get back into familiar territory where I think most people know the story. Only enough untainted oil for one night could be found for the menorah, which was supposed to be lit every night. But miraculously, it continued to burn for eight nights, giving Judah and his followers time to find more oil. It was declared a miracle and made into a yearly festival. What I bet not many people know though is that the story of Hanukkah and Hanukkah itself is not actually in the Torah because it happened after the Torah was written. Some scholars say that it is, however, mentioned in the New Testiment when Jesus attends a “Festival of Dedication.” Today the tradition lives on and a new candle is added and lit each night throughout the eight days of Hanukkah. Now, I’m sure that those of you who are observant and can count are probably wondering why in the picture at the top there are nine candles. The candle in the middle that’s a little higher than the others is the shamash or helper candle. You use this candle to light the others.
And that, my friends, is how Hanukkah came to be. I’ll leave you guys with a music video. This group, called the Maccabeats, first started gaining attention about two years ago when they made a Hanukkah parody of Taio Cruz’s song Dynamite. Since then, they’ve released two albums and two more Hanukkah-related songs, the newest of which just debuted Saturday. It’s their first original Hannukah tune and is called Shine which I’ll also post below. Below is the music video for Candlelight, their Dynamite parody. It explains the story of Hanukkah. Underneath is the Maccabeats’ newest single Shine. Enjoy!