Huh? You ask. Well, it's Chanukah.
When does Chanukah fall
? This year, it happens to fall on December 25th. Chanukah lasts 8 nights, so it'll be done early next year. The start date changes because Judaism is mainly on a lunar calendar, rather than a solar calendar, like the West (actually, Judaism is on what's called a lunisolar calendar, like in the Chinese system). But, since this does not jibe with what really happens to the earth, e. g. it can eventually end up that we have Spring holidays during Summer -- oopsie -- there's a leap month every 3 years. This is called an intercalary month. We just do a month all over again (it just so happens to be Adar. Why Adar? Well, why not? It's a nice month.).
Anyway, this was a standard, nonleap year, at least the part of the year that mostly coincided with 2005. But the current year, the one that started in September, actually is a leap. http://webexhibits.org/calendars/calendar-jewish.html
How do you celebrate Chanukah?
Well, it involves lighting a menorah: http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday7.htm
<-- here's a menorah. But they can be lots of shapes and sizes, all you need is eight candle holders plus one taller or otherwise more prominent holder. This is for what's called the Shammus (leader) candle, from which the others are lit. You light one candle the first night (plus the Shammus; you light the Shammus with a match and then the first candle from the Shammus; then on the second night you light the Shammus with a match and then two candles from the Shammus, all the way up to eight. Hence there are always 44 candles in a standard package of Chanukah candles).
Isn't there more to the celebration
? Well, that's it for the religious part. The rest is traditions. You spin a dreidel, you fry up foods for dinner, and you have Chanukah gelt. There is no specific requirement to go to synagogue.
How do you play the dreidel game
? Here's a dreidel:
<-- there is a letter on each side. Each letter stands for what you get if the dreidel lands on a particular side. Plus, the letters stand for a phrase: Nes Gadol Haya Sham
= A great miracle happened there.
= you get nothing if the dreidel lands that way
= you get the entire pot
= you get half of the pot
= you share one token, candy or penny (whatever is the smallest unit of what you're betting) with all of your fellow players
From left to right, in the above picture, are the Shin, Heh, Gimel and Nun.
Why the fried foods
? Well, the great miracle is that, after the Greeks and Syrians ransacked the great Temple in, erm, something like 165 BC, the oil was not pure. Why did anyone care about pure oil? Because of the Ner Tamid
, the eternal light, which burns in every synagogue around the world. But you need pure oil for this. In any event, a small amount of oil was found, only enough for one day. But it would take eight days to purify more! What to do? Light the one day's worth of oil and hope for the best. And that's what happened -- the one day's worth was lit and the miracle was that it lasted for eight days rather than one. That's it? Yeah, that's it.
Hence frying foods in oil -- not only potato pancakes (latkes)
but also donuts -- is as a reminder of the oil used. It's also because it's tasty.
But before the oil and all of that, what happened
? There was a guy, Judah Maccabee
, and he had a bunch of brothers. And when the Greeks and Syrians came in, he and his brothers (and their father, Mattathias) decided they weren't going to take it any more. So they fought the Greco-Syrians and threw them out. Therefore the story is not just about oil, it's also about fighting for freedom. A few hundred years after that, the same thing was tried against the Romans, but without success, and the warriors ended up at Masada in AD 79, where they committed mass suicide.
What's Chanukah gelt
? Milk chocolate wrapped in gold-colored foil, made to look like coins. It's often used to bet in the dreidel game.
Why are there so many ways to spell Chanukah
? Chanukah, Chanukkah, Hanukka, Hanukkah, etc. etc. etc. you get the idea. About the only way not to spell Chanukah is Christmas.
This is because the word has a sound at the beginning which is not found in English. The sound is like a guttural, hard kh, like the q without a u at the beginning of Qaddaffi
or the ch in the German expression Ach
Is it an important holiday
? Not really. It ended up being a gift-giving holiday more because of Christmas than anything else. If it happened in, say, May, it would not be too well-known, like Lag B'Omer, which is about as important and really does happen right around May every year. But it's not a bad holiday. It's a happy occasion, there is no fasting and there are no special dietary requirements (you don't absolutely have to have the fried foods if you don't want them). It's a pretty flexible celebration. Far more crucial holidays are Rosh Hashanah (New Year's) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
Is it celebrated by all Jews
? Yep, so far as I know. These two guys are Ethiopian, and they're as Jewish as I am.
I bet they're lighting candles tonight, too.
What are traditional greetings
? Happy Chanukah! Good Yontif! Chag Samayach! Yom Tov!
Let the party begin.
Welcome, my friends, and have fun.