November and December are host to a slew of holidays, including Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. Hanukkah, taking place this year from Nov. 28 to Dec. 6, is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays.
The exact dates Hanukkah is celebrated on vary from year to year due to the Jewish calendar. It often overlaps with Christmas, leading to some confusion between the two holidays. While they both emphasize family and typically involve presents, the holidays don’t share much in common besides that.
The candelabra with eight candle spots and a ninth to light the rest, called a “menorah” or “chanukiah,” is a popular symbol for Hanukkah. Yet, the story behind Hanukkah is a mystery to many, particularly because it originates in 200 BC.
During the Greek-Assyrian empire, the Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes captured Jerusalem and demanded the Jewish people be arrested for practising their religion — but they persisted.
Epiphanes had the holy Temple desecrated in retaliation, burning unacceptable offerings on the altar and ruining most of the purified olive oil that was used for candelabra lightings.
The Jewish people created a resilience movement led by the sons of the Temple’s high priest. The resilience fighters became known as the “maccabees,” led by the youngest son of the priest, Judah the Maccabee.
While the Jewish army did not appear to be strong, they ultimately defeated the Greek army and reclaimed their temple. As a symbol of triumph, they sought to light their candelabra but could only find one small vial of purified oil leftover. The amount left appeared to be enough to keep the candelabra lit for one day.
“When they came back the next day to the Holy Temple, they saw that the candles were still lit,” explains one of the Chabad London spiritual leaders, Nechamie Silberberg. “And they came the next day and they saw the candles were still and for eight days [it remained lit]. … That little flask of oil lasted.”
The miracle of the oil lasting is symbolic of the Jewish fight for religious freedom, which is ultimately why the holiday is celebrated today.
“It's the triumph of religious freedom,” says Silberberg.
The celebratory nature of the holiday has translated to today’s festivities.
“I just love Hanukkah. I think it's my favorite holiday ever. The food is phenomenal,” says Alyssa Bergamn, a third-year student.
Much of the food eaten is fried in oil, like “latkes,” which are potato pancakes, and “sufganiyot,” which are jelly-filled donuts. This is to further commemorate the oil used in ancient times.
Food eaten during Hanukkah is also at the root of some common misconceptions surrounding the holiday. Legend says that gold coins, called “gelt,” were given to Jewish children during the time of the Maccabees to help foster a spirit of independence.
Loft’s created chocolate gelt, chocolates wrapped in gold foil to look like the original gold coins, in the 1920s. This eventually turned into the tradition of gift-giving. But there’s variety within the Jewish tradition. Some families gift chocolate gelt, some gift actual money, some gift presents and others gift a combination of the three.
“My dad is from South Africa, and he never got presents when he was younger,” says Alyssa. “So he passed on that tradition, which I'm not too thrilled about but I still enjoy getting the gelt. Friends asked me about Hanukkah, they're always like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so lucky. You get presents for eight days instead of one.’ … I always get to respond: ‘I don't get presents at all,’” explains Bergman.
Third-year science student Aaron Herlick, on the other hand, gets one big present at the end of the eight-day holiday, as opposed to the common idea that presents are given on all eight days.
“I think it depends on the family,” he says. “But my family would do like one big present at the end of the holiday.”
While traditions vary, the core of holiday is more widely agreed upon, which is bringing in warmth, light and spending time with family. Particularly in the colder and darker months, Hanukkah brings some joy and fun to those who celebrate.