Hannukah Guide for Beginners

The world often talks about Hanukkah as though it is “Jewish Christmas”, it’s not hard to see why. It begins around the end of December, involves the giving of gifts and, it fits neatly beside Christmas in the bag marked “religious stuff”. But is that where the similarity ends?

What is Hanukah About?

It all starts with the name; Hanukah means dedication. Antiochus, the Greek had taken over the Jewish kingdom and was trying very hard to impose his Greekishness on the people. Traditional worship and rituals were forbidden, and the temple was dedicated to a Greek god. Finally, in his arrogance, Antiochus defiled the temple with the sacrifice of a pig – that was the last straw.

The story of the revolt that followed, is well worth reading. What began with Mattathias Maccabeus’ indignation and wrath, ended in the overthrow of Antiochus’ rule, and the re-dedication of the temple.


As part of the dedication, the Maccabees re-lit the “eternal flame”, a lamp that should never have gone out. They knew that they only had enough consecrated oil for one day, but they had faith that the Lord would provide more, somehow. It was eight days before more of the special oil could be found, but the lamp miraculously kept burning.

The Menorah

During Hanukkah, a special candlestick with many branches, called a Menorah, is displayed in a prominent window of Jewish houses. The miracle of the oil is commemorated by lighting candles or burning oil in the menorah. One candle is added each day for the eight days of Hanukah. A special candle, called the Shamash, is used to light the other candles each night. After lighting the Menorah it is customary to either sing “Haneirot Halalu,” or “Maoz Tzur”, or both, if you’re keen.


While we are on the subject of oil, you can’t have a Hanukah celebration without food, fried food, lots of it. Latkes are a favourite, they are a kind of potato pancake. Sufganiyot are also popular – delicious, sweet jelly-filled doughnuts. Believe it or not, the frying really does have a connection to the miracle of the oil, so you can forget about your waistline and get with the tradition.

What would a celebration be without gifts?

Traditionally, children received gifts of coins, known as “gelt”, the Yiddish word for money. These days, on each of the eight days of the celebration, a lucky kid might receive chocolate coins covered in gold foil, or a present. A really lucky kid might get, savings bonds or checks.


Dreidels is gambling, no two ways about it. The kids play it for candy, and the one who gets all the candy, wins (naturally). The dreidel is a four sided spinning top with the Hebrew letters gimel, hei, nun and shin on each side. The letters represent the sentence which translates to “A great miracle happened there.”

The game begins with everyone putting into the pot, then each person gets a turn at spinning. What you do after you spin depends on what letter lands face up:

“Nun” means you get nothing, you lose nothing.

“Gimel” means you grab the lot.

“Hei” is for half.

“Shin” means put in.

Hanukah is About Joy

Hanukah is like Christmas in one more way, is that it is a time for family. It’s a time to gather all your loved ones and celebrate being together. It’s about taking the time to share, blessings, traditions, stories and songs (there are so many traditional songs)  … and, of course food and presents.

That’s the basics, hope you enjoy your holidays.

Happy Hanukah (practice that “H”, it’s kind of aspirated)

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