Why We Celebrate” looks at holidays, occasions, and traditions from all over the world, and explains their origins, the meaning behind them, and the reasons we observe them. Whether this is the first time you’ve learned about this Jewish holiday or you’re a dreidel spinning champion, this guide to Hanukkah traditions will catch you up on this fun celebration for the whole family.

Hanukkah cookies ad

The “eight crazy nights” of Hanukkah celebrate two miracles that happened over 2,000 years ago: The tiny band of local Jewish freedom fighters driving Syrian-Greek invaders out of Israel, and the Second Temple’s menorah staying lit for eight days even though it had enough oil to last only one. Hence the name, the Festival of Lights.

How we celebrate Hanukkah

Photo of kids lighting the menorah with their grandparents

Jews have a number of fun Hanukkah traditions to celebrate these two miracles. We light a menorah for each of the eight days, starting with one candle on the first day and ending with eight on the last (plus a little helper candle, called a shamash, to light the others). There are all sorts of fun candles available, including ones that come in rainbow colors and those made from beeswax. We also recite prayers while we light the menorah.

Oil is a huge part of Hanukah, and to celebrate the miracle it gave us, Jews make delicious (and mostly fried) treats that we can eat for the eight days of celebration. These include potato pancakes called latkes, fried jelly-filled donuts called sufganiyot (which go well with wine, by the way), and whatever else you can make with a bit of miracle-worthy olive oil.

Photo of Hanukkah cookies

As if getting to eat donuts for dinner wasn’t enough, kids enjoy even more benefits on Hanukkah. In addition to getting gifts every night, children also get to play with a dreidel, a four-sided spinning top with a letter on each side representing the words “A Great Miracle Happened There.” (Unless it was made in Israel.) Which side faces up once the dreidel falls determines whether the player won or lost and by how much. The stakes are high, since kids usually play for some pretty sweet currency: chocolate coins, called gelt. Of course, adults can up the ante by playing for cookies or even truffles.

There’s also the music. We all come together and sing catchy tunes like “Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah” and the aptly named dreidel song “Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel.”

No wonder everybody loves Hanukkah! We eat delicious oily food, share gifts, and have fun as a family. What could be better?

Author

David Kieve is a digital nomad, building communities in cities like Philadelphia, Chiang Mai, Jerusalem, and Kiev — one Shabbat dinner and jam at a time.

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