Hanukkah starts tonight.
Totally exciting, right?
I’m sorry to burst your holiday bubble, but Hanukkah isn’t much of a holiday. But, to be fair, neither is Christmas, when you come right down to it. I mean, if Jesus was born on December 25th, why is New Year’s a week later? It makes no sense. And what on earth does a fat guy in a red suit have to do with Jesus’ birthday?
But I digress.
Hanukkah (and yes, you can spell it with a C. But I don’t. Because then people think it’s pronounced CHA-nukah, like the Cha-Cha, and that just makes me want to start punching people. If you can’t say the “chuh” sound right, just pronounce it like an “h” so you sound less ignorant) is one of the least important holidays of the Jewish year.
I mean, it’s a fun holiday, because it’s got a good story behind it, as opposed to say, Tu B’shvat, when you plant trees, or Lag Ba Omer (which I still haven’t 100 percent figured out. I THINK it has something to do with counting seven weeks from the beginning of Passover. But I have no idea what that means or what you’re supposed to do for it). But the only reason people assign any major significance to it is because it usually falls somewhat close to Christmas and no Jewish parents want their kids to feel left out.
But, teaching at a school with a teeny-tiny Jewish population, I get asked a lot of ridiculous questions about the holiday every year, so it’s time to explain exactly what Hanukkah is.
First of all, no, there is no such thing as Hanukkah Harry.
I don’t know what idiot thought that up, but it was probably a Jew who was making fun of someone for not knowing what Hanukkah was. Unfortunately, now people think it’s true. It’s not. The only people who give us presents on Hanukkah are our families and friends. No random old man comes around to give things to Jews. To throw us into concentration camps or build gallows to hang us all from (we’ll get to that story when Purim rolls around), maybe.
But give us presents? No.
Nor is there a Hanukkah bush.
Yes, some Jews have Christmas tree envy and may choose to get some form of a shrubbery to decorate in December (insert Knights Who Say Ni joke here), but if they do that, it’s their own assimilationist idea, not a religious or culturally significant event.
The basic story behind Hanukkah is that a Jewish military group, the Maccabees, defeated the Babylonians, who after they destroyed the First Temple.
That in and of itself was considered something of a miracle and should be celebrated as such, along with all other Jewish military victories (like the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War) because on the whole, we’re not an athletic people. If you want your taxes done or someone sued, call one of us. Need a doctor? A Jew is a good bet. Need a strong military force? Not so much. So when we DO manage to kick some major ass physically, it’s a big deal.
But that’s not what Hanukkah is REALLY about. Instead, it’s about oil.
No, I don’t mean the kind of oil the Middle East fights over now, and no, it had nothing to do with rising gas prices.
It’s about oil to light a lamp. After fighting off the Babylonians, the Maccabees needed to restore the Temple. But there was only enough oil to last one night, which would not be enough to complete their work. The miracle was that the oil lasted for eight days, just long enough to complete the Temple’s restoration as a place of worship, which is why we light candles for the eight nights of Hanukkah.
So because it’s a celebration more than a day of prayer, we do what Jews stereotypically do best: eat and play with money. We eat potato latkes, which are basically Jewish hash browns (in case any of you who haven’t had them think I misspelled the word “lakes” or something, I didn’t. They’re called latkes and they’re delicious. Especially when my grandma makes them). But latkes are significant because they’re cooked in oil, which is what the holiday is about.
I have no idea how the dreidel thing ties in, and to be honest, I’ve never understood why that game was supposed to be fun. It’s not. Granted, I’m not the world’s biggest gambler. When I go to Atlantic City, I go there to shop because I prefer to KNOW that I’m getting something for my money, like shoes. But even playing for candy in Hebrew School never appealed to me because the rules are kind of flimsy. And I’ve never seen anyone play dreidel when it wasn’t just a way to avoid doing work in Hebrew school.
But Sara, I don’t get it, if Hanukkah isn’t a big deal, why do Jewish kids get presents for eight nights?
Because Christian kids get Christmas presents.
It may not be a significant part of the Jewish year (or even the most fun holiday of the Jewish year—presents or not, Purim beats Hanukkah hands down. You dress up like it’s Halloween, and you’re SUPPOSED to get super drunk. Literally. A rabbi told me that you’re supposed to get so drunk that you can’t tell the difference between Haman, the bad guy in the story, and Mordachai, the good guy in the story. Best holiday ever. In fact, best religion ever, just because of that holiday), but American Jewish parents need SOMETHING to bargain with to keep their kids interested in Judaism until they’re old enough to find out about the real way to celebrate Purim.
And thus the eight nights of Hanukkah presents were born.
I, for one, am grateful to Jesus for that. He may not be my personal savior, and I have no idea when he was actually born, but he’s the reason I get eight presents every December. So on behalf of Jewish children everywhere, and in the words of Homer Simpson, “Thank you, Jebus!”
So to all the other Members of the Tribe out there, I’d like to wish you a happy Hanukkah, no matter how you personally choose to spell or celebrate it. And if anyone has figured out how to make dreidel fun, let me know. Otherwise, just enjoy the latkes and try not to burn your house down with the Hanukkah candles (which almost happened to me last year… more on that later this week when I blog about Hanukkah horror stories).