MIAMI COUNTY — Many people mistakenly refer to Hanukkah as “the Jewish version of Christmas,” but the holiday is actually one of the lesser celebrations of Judaism, according to Elaine Litchfield, president of Congregation Anshe Emeth.
This erroneous belief stems from the fact that Hanukkah falls in proximity to Christmas and both involve gift-giving, Litchfield noted, but there are much more important holy holidays to Jews, like Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which was observed in late September.
Known as the Festival of Lights or the Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah begins this year on the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 12, and ends the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 20. Congregation Anshe Emeth, located at 320 Caldwell St. in Piqua, will observe the holiday with a Shabbat service and Hanukkah celebration at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15.
The history of Hanukkah
As the story goes, a small army led by Judah Maccabee revolted against the Syrian Greeks, who did not want to allow the Jews to practice their religion back in the 2nd century. After their victory, the army attempted to light the Holy Temple’s menorah — a nine-branched candelabrum— and found only a single cruse of oil, just enough to light the menorah for one day.
Miraculously, the menorah burned for eight days. And thus began the tradition of lighting the menorah each night of Hanukkah. Every evening, another candle is lit, going from left to right, until on the eighth night, all the candles are burning. The ninth candleholder — the shamash or “helper” candle — is used to light all the other candles.
Other Hanukkah customs
The celebration of Hanukkah features eating foods cooked in oil to represent the oil of the Holy Temple, including latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot — deep-fried jam- or jelly-filled doughnuts. Brisket also is common as the main course. Other dishes you might find at a Hanukkah feast are noodle kugel, short ribs and rugelach, a miniature crescent-rolled pastry filled with fruit, nuts, chocolate or whatever your hearts — and tastebuds — desire.
Another tradition is playing games with the dreidel, a four-sided spinning top marked with the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hei and shin, which form the acronym for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” which means “a great miracle happened there” in reference to the Holy Temple miracle.
Hanukkah comes with its own set of “carols” to sing around the glow of the menorah. These songs celebrate everything from the profound, e.g., the glory of God and the Holy Temple, as in “Ma’Oz Tzur,” to the simple, like the joy of dreidel games: “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel/I made it out of clay/And when it’s dry and ready/Dreidel I shall play.”
When it comes to gift-giving during Hanukkah, the old European custom of giving gelt (coins or money) is still around — with children often receiving chocolate coins wrapped in gold tin foil — but the current trend of giving actual gifts took off around the 1950s.
“My kids receive a gift each night,” said Leah Baumhauer, a teacher at Springcreek Primary School, and mother of Sam, 6, and Annabelle, 3. “Our family celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas, so sometimes it gets a little challenging to find things the kids will enjoy and appreciate, but also need.”
Baumhauer and husband Jonny usually give their children games or toys, she said, but they also do “theme” nights.
“Last year, we had camping night and the kids each got a sleeping bag as gifts, and on art night, they got art supplies,” she said.
Sharing the gift of knowledge
Sam and Annabelle aren’t the only youngsters in Baumhauer’s life who are learning to love Hanukkah. Each year, she also teaches her first-graders about the holiday.
“I’m doing several activities with my class. We’ll be reading a book (about Hanukkah), there’s a SMART board presentation we’ll be looking at, and we’ll be making a paper menorah. We’ll also be playing the dreidel game,” she said.
“I also have an electric menorah, so each day, I show them what it looks like when we add the next light, and they really love to see that.”
Hanukkah on the home front
Though she’s had larger gatherings in the past, Litchfield said her family’s Hanukkah observation this year will be relatively small.
“We had all the family in for Thanksgiving, so we won’t be gathering for Hanukkah this year,” she said. “We will have a small latke party with my daughter and her family, and, of course, light the candles for the eight nights of Hanukkah.”
As for Baumhauer, her family will be doing the traditional candle-lighting and saying blessings in both Hebrew and English. “Sam, as the years go by, definitely gets better and better at saying the Hebrew blessings, so it’s really fun to hear him say the prayers,” Baumhauer said.
“We usually get on three-way calling with my mom and dad to say the prayers,” she added. “That tradition started when I was in college. Now with everyone having their own schedules, it’s hard to get together each night, so we normally get together on the last night of Hanukkah with my brother and his family, and my parents and my family.”
Despite the numerous differences between Christmas and Hanukkah, there’s one thing the two have in common: the anticipation of what’s to come.
“Plus, it lasts for so many nights instead of just having everything all at once,” Baumhauer said. “The suspense of the holiday really is enjoyable!”
Reach Belinda M. Paschal at email@example.com or (937) 451-3341