Life / Spirituality & religion

11 Chanukah Facts to Review before Thanksgiving

The first night of Chanukah is this Wednesday, November 27th. The first day lands on Thanksgiving here in the United States. You may be spending your Thanksgiving with Jews, so here are some facts about Chanukah history and traditions to get you through Thanksgiving this year.

Chanukah menorahs


1. The Greek ruler Antiochus IV tried to force the Jews to assimilate and worship Greek gods. He ransacked the Holy Temple and massacred Jews. In 165 B.C.E., Judah (The Maccabee) Hasmon led the revolt against the Greeks and ejected the Greeks from Israel. The Jewish people rededicated the Temple. The word Chanukah, means Dedication.

2. When it was time to rededicate the Temple, the Jews needed to light the Temple menorah (the 7-branched lamp).  The menorah was supposed to stay lit 24/7, but they found only enough oil to last one day. The small amount of oil burned for eight days. On Chanukah, we celebrate the miracle of the oil. But, the oil is to Chanukah what Santa Claus is to Christmas – not real. Yeah, the oil was added to the Talmud 600 years later. Some speculate that the oil part was a cover story for the Jews living under Roman rule in Israel and Persian rule in Babylon. They didn’t want to call attention to a holiday that celebrated military rebellion. The Jews tried to fly under the radar of their oppressors with that story, and we’ve been telling our kids that yarn ever since. Here’s the deal: We won’t tell your kids about Santa, and you don’t mention the oil bit to ours.

3. The first night of Chanukah is the 25th of Kislev in the lunar-based calendar, which means that it seems like a moving target to our Gregorian calendar types. Given that The Jewish calendar is getting out of sync with the solar calendar at a rate of 4 days every 1000 years, Thanksgiving and the first day of Chanukah will not share a date until the year 79,811, should our world still exist and we don’t use up all our natural resources or kill each other, godfubbid!

4. On each night of Chanukah, we add a candle to our menorah until there are nine candles burning, eight candles for each night of Chanukah and one candle called the shamash (sha – MAHSH), the candle we use to light all the other candles. Seven out of ten Jewish households have a menorah made from wood and bolts that their kids made in Jewish preschool. Ok, I made that statistic up.

Wooden Chanukah menorah


5. There is no correct way to spell Chanukah unless you are spelling it in Hebrew. That said, many of us have an emotional attachment to our chosen spelling, which you should neither question nor correct if you know what’s good for you.

6. Chanukah is minor holiday, not nearly as important as Christmas is to Christians.

7. Only Jews can tell you that Chanukah is a minor holiday. We’re a sensitive people what with all the historical oppression and killing and what not.

8. It is traditional to play dreidl (DRAY-duhl) which is a gambling game using a toy top. The game was a cover up for those Jews studying Torah illegally. If an inspector came to check things out, the books went away and the dreidl came out.

Chanukah dreidl


9. Another tradition is to eat fried foods on Chanukah because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Latkes (LAHT-keez/potato pancakes) are a fan favorite.

10. Gift-giving is not a Chanukah tradition. Because we Jews in the U.S. live, work and sometimes even hang out with gentiles and because Chanukah usually falls near Christmas, we have adopted the tradition of giving gifts during Chanukah as our gentile friends do on Christmas. Our children thank you.

Getting gifts on Chanukah


11. We do appreciate the beauty of the Christmas tree, but in spite of what you may have heard, there is no such thing as a Chanukah bush other than the one my lady-friend gets to unwrap after the children have gone to bed.

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  1. Thanks for this! First time I had heard about the oil being a later add-in. I will keep it on the DL, per your request.

  2. I am now prepared to talk Chanukah though I think you spelled it wrong.

  3. #11 cracked me up! I learned a lot from this post. Is it ok for a gentile to wish a Jew Happy Chanukah? If so, then Happy Chanukah!

    • Absolutely! We welcome all well wishes from our gentile friends. I thank you. And Happy Festive Holiday Season to you, too!!

  4. This. Is. Awesome.

    And do I have to give up my Jew-card if I admit that I did not know that the oil thing is a big hoax? I’ve been living a lie. Maybe this is what it’s like to find out that Santa doesn’t really exist.

    • A good Jew is always learning, so you can definitely keep your card. Confession: I didn’t find out about the oil until very recently. Now I feel it’s my duty to spread the word.

      • I totally hadn’t heard the oil thing either–in fact, I read it off to my partner this morning in a flurry of excitement. Relatedly, once, on the way home from a night of Chanukkah at my parents’ house, our car said the fuel was empty. We spent about an hour driving through town (it was also Christmas eve or something) trying to find an open gas station. It was our Chanukkah miracle. APPARENTLY that was a sham 🙁 Dangit. My heart’s broken.

        • Gone are the days when the world was mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful and when there was miraculous oil and E stood for Empty. I am sorry for your broken heart, but we can delight in the innocence of our children who still play marbles and piracies and believe.

  5. Sometimes my cell phone shows just 1% battery life…but it stays on all day. I call it my “cell phone Chanukah.”

    But now that little joke is even a sham because it refers to the oil, and you pointed out that that is nothing but myth. Did you enjoy doing that? Did it provide you with a little frisson of malicious glee to pop that little oily bubble of hope and miracle? While you’re at it, go stand around at the mall, too, and yell loudly, “He’s just a mall Santa! Someone’s grandpa! He ain’t real, kids!” Geez.

    Anyway, this was educational and entertaining to boot. Thanks for doing this important tovah (doesn’t really rise to the level of a mitzvah) of explaining the Chanukah.

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