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Hanukkah: a festival of light

Updated Monday, 4 December 2023
What's Hanukkah all about? And how do Jewish people celebrate it? 

Hanukkah menorah candles As with other religious and cultural festivals, a lot is wrapped up in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, or Chanukah. The timing of the celebration moves each year with the Hebrew calendar (similar to Easter), but in 2023, Hanukkah runs from the evening of Thursday December 7th, ending eight days later on the evening of Friday December 15th. The festival begins with the lighting of a candle around sunset on the first day, and each night one more candle is lit until nine are burning brightly on the menorah or hanukkiah candelabrum - one for each night of the festival, plus a 'helper' candle or shammash from which the others are lit. As with many Jewish and other religious festivals, there are associated foods. In the case of Hanukkah the emphasis is on fried foods, particularly potato pancakes (latkes - see picture below) and doughnuts (sufganiyot).

Latkes What is being celebrated with lights and food cooked in oil? The story behind the festival is of an effort by an imperial power (the Hellenistic-Syrian Seleucid empire) to impose religious and cultural conformity and uniformity on everyone under their rule. A number of Jewish practices in both everyday and ceremonial life were banned. A resistance movement succeeded and set about restoring local life, albeit with at least tacit recognition that the new superpower would continue to dominate the region. During the conflict Jerusalem’s temple had been desecrated. So here’s why light and oil are central to Hanukkah: in restoring the temple to its religious function it was necessary to light a sacred lamp. However, only enough oil for one day was available. It is said that this oil burnt for the eight days required to produce more. Hanukkah celebrates this as a miracle, a divine intervention.

Girl looking at menorah with lit candles This all seems straight-forward: claims about a miracle in the second century before the Christian Era are remembered by Jews and celebrated by the lighting of candles and the eating of fried foods. What precisely is being celebrated? Is it the miracle of the oil itself? Or is it the ending of a persecution and the ensuing war? Are festivals of light in this and other religions about the benefits of light, warmth and well-being or about more “spiritual”, less “earthly” concerns? If you read websites about Hanukkah you will find different emphases. However, you are unlikely to find strongly polarised oppositions. That is, those who emphasise divine intervention and encourage people to be more “spiritual” do not have any difficulty in enjoying doughnuts and latkes. Those who emphasise the virtue of diversity and of resistance to imperialism are not averse to singing praise songs. Those who like a bit of a party are not opposed to remembering  past injustices or to celebrating survival against the odds. Hanukkah, a festival of light and of lights illuminates many possibilities. 


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