The Festival of Lights: Why We Celebrate Hanukkah

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Two of my best friends are Jewish. One keeps a traditional home and celebrates all the traditional Jewish holidays, while the other celebrates both her Jewish heritage and her faith in Jesus. I have known both of them for a great many years, and even though I am a Christian, I have enjoyed celebrating with them for Hanukkah and Passover. My friend Amy and her family have celebrated with me at my Advent dinners and at our Easter egg hunt.


But being a Christian, I did not know much of the history behind the Festival of Lights or Hanukkah. So in honor of Amy and Elaine, I give you a brief history of the holiday, Hanukkah. Please know that this comes from a Christian perceptive, I am not an authority on this subject but I wanted to share with you the wonder of this holiday.


The Jewish festival of Hanukkah commemorates the military victory of the Jewish Maccabees and their re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The time of the Maccabees Revolt was in the 2nd century BCE. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev, according to the Hebrew calendar. It may occur from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar. According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.


The Menorah

To commemorate these miracles, a Hanukkah Menorah is lit during each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah is the central observance of the festival. One candle is lit the first night, and an additional candle is lit each successive night. On the last night of Hanukkah, all eight candles of the Menorah are lit. The candles are lit by a window or door in order to fulfill the commandment to "publicize the miracle." While lighting the candles, blessings are recited and songs are sung.

After lighting the Hanukkah candles together, families (and often invited guests) will eat and play games. The custom of giving Hanukkah Gelt (money) to children has evolved into a gift-giving tradition in many Jewish families today. Also today, families give each other Gelt made of chocolate, the traditional gold coins.


The Dreidel

Dreidel is a traditional Hanukkah game. The classic Dreidel is a four sided spinning top made of wood, plastic, or the proverbial clay. On the four sides of the Dreidel appear four letters from the Hebrew alphabet "nun", "gimmel", "hay", and "shin". These four letters are an acronym for "nes gadol hayah sham" - "a great miracle happened there." Many Christian children receive a Dreidel from their Jewish friends so in this fellowship, so here are the directions to play this game.

Age range: Three and up

2 or more players

  • 1 Dreidel (or, accelerate the pace of the game by supplying each player with his/her own Dreidel)
  • The "Ante": nuts, pennies, nickels, chocolate coins, nuts, or just about anything else...
  • Flat Surface (such as floor or wide table) for Dreidel spinning

All players sit around the playing area. The "ante" is equally divided amongst all players.

Everyone takes a turn at spinning the Dreidel; the one with the highest spin has first turn. (Nun is highest, then gimmel, hey, and shin.) If there is a tie for highest, those who tied spin again. Everyone puts one unit of the ante (penny, nut, etc.) into the pot. The one who has first turn is followed in clockwise direction by all the others.

Player A spins the Dreidel while everyone waits in utter suspense. If the Dreidel lands on a... Nun - you've just wasted your time. Absolutely nothing happens. Better luck next time! Nun stands for the Yiddish word nul, which means zero, nothing, nil.

Now it is time for the player to your left to take a spin. If however your Dreidel landed on a... Gimmel - Wow! Amazing! You did it! You get to take the whole pot! You are an absolute dreidel pro! Gimmel stands for gantz, which means whole. Everyone, including you, now puts another unit of the ante into the pot, and the person to your left tries his luck at spinning. But, it's hard to be so lucky every time.


Sometimes your dreidel will land on a... Hey - Okay, you could have done better, but you could have done worse. You get to take half of the pot. If the pot has an odd amount of units, don't try to split that penny, nut, or piece of chocolate in half. Leave it there. Hey stands for halb, half. The pot has now been diminished.

It's time for the player to your left to take a stab at riches. The dreidel could have landed on Shin - the absolute worst. The dregs. You now have to put another unit into the pot! Shin is for shenk; that means give. Your hope now is that the pot will still be around next time it is your turn to spin. Maybe then you'll get a gimmel and recoup your losses...

And the real endgame is the lesson this game has taught. We are overjoyed about the miracles and wonders Gd did for our ancestors. Throughout Hanukkah, this is constantly on our mind, even when we are involved with fun and games!



Jewish children also have songs they sing during Hanakkah just like we do for Christmas. Here are two of the songs they sing. In California where I grew up, I was taught the Driedel Song right along with our Christmas Carols.

Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah

Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,
Come light the menorah.
Let's have a party,
We'll all dance the hora.
Gather round the table,
We'll give you a treat.
Dreidels to play with, latkes to eat.
And while we are playing
The candles are burning low.
One for each night,
They shed a sweet light
To remind us of days long ago;
One for each night,
They shed a sweet light
To remind us of days long ago.

The Dreidel Song

I have a little dreidel,
I made it out of clay.
And when it's dry and ready,
Oh dreidel I shall play.

Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel,
I made it out of clay;
And when its dry and ready,
Then dreidel I shall play.

It has a lovely body,
With legs so short and thin.
And when it gets all tired,
It drops and then I win.


Editor's Note:

Here is another article by Debra with recipes for this holiday:

Happy Hanukkah from ThriftyFun! Hanukkah starts today, on Friday, December 11, 2009.

Do you celebrate Hanukkah? Share your favorite memories or traditions here.

The Festival of Lights: Why We Celebrate Hanukkah

About The Author: Debra Frick is a mother of 5 and a grandmother to 8 grandsons and one granddaughter. She is a published author and poetress. Recycling and saving money are her passions. She also loves crocheting and cooking. She is also a pet rescue volunteer and has many pets of her own.

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December 11, 20090 found this helpful

We celebrate Chanukah as well. Pretty good summary. Two other points to note are that Chanukah (the Feast of Dedication) is mentioned in the Book of Macabees and in John 10.22. There are eight lights on the Chanukiah (lampstand for Chanukah) plus the Servant Candle, which is used to light the other lights.

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