It is the first day of Hanukkah! Jewish holidays begin at night, so this leads to a lot of Google calendar confusion, trust me. Although I’ve talked about Hanukkah in the past, I still get lots of questions about the eight-day holiday. Because of that, I wanted to share eight facts you may or may not know.
Hanukkah Fact #1: Our holidays begin at night because in the Creation story in the Old Testament, the Hebrew reads “There was evening, there was morning” before each day of Creation.
Hanukkah is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, which means there are no restrictions regarding using electricity, driving in cars, and all of the restrictions which take place on Shabbat, Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Hanukkah Fact #2: Minor does not mean “not awesome” because Hanukkah is totally awesome! We light a Chanukiah, which is the name for the eight-branched menorah every night, adding increasing amounts of candles, lights, and opportunities for things to be set on fire. (Be careful!) And yes: Chanukiahs have 9 branches because one is the “leader” candle, which is used to light all of the others.
The story of Hanukkah appears outside of the Old Testament because it happened during the rise of Hellenism in the 2nd century BCE. The less favored military force of the Maccabees, a group of ragtag Jews led by a man named Judah, son of Mattathias, defeats the Greek Seleucid Empire army who wants only to make them assimilate. You know: eat pork, bow down to Greek gods, stop removing the foreskins of all of the baby Jews; standard Hellenism stuff.
Hanukkah Fact #3: As a very astute New York Times piece noticed, this holiday commemorates the resistance against assimilation, and yet Hanukkah is the most celebrated holiday by otherwise unaffiliated assimilated Jews. This is not really a problem for Jews, though, since we are a people familiar with tension and the struggle for finding balance between our individuality and universalism.
The story goes that after the Jews defeated the Assyrians, they tried to reignite the menorah (the six-branched candelabra that decorates most synagogue even today) and only had oil for one night. It lasted eight nights. Take home message: Eat tons of food fried in oil for eight greasy, fatty nights. Yum!
Hanukkah Fact #4: Pretty much every Jewish holiday can be summed up with these nine words: They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. True story.
And so for eight nights, we kindle lights, sing songs, eat potato pancakes (we call them latkes) and indulge in donuts (we call them sufganiyot). Delicious. Religious Jews tend to emphasize the need to reaffirm our faith and praise Gd for miracles at this time of year.
Hanukkah Fact #5: Hanukkah is not “Jewish Christmas.” While many Jews decorate a tree with blue and white and seize on the opportunity to buy lots and lots of presents, many traditional families downplay the comparison and thus avoid confusion. When my kids ask, “Why don’t we get to make a list of all of the things we want and you buy them for us?” I simply respond, “Because that’s not our holiday.”
As a divorced working mom, Hanukkah presents eight nights of “What do we do?” for me. My mom hosts one night, and my ex-husband is throwing a little party on one of the nights. I am working every day of the holiday and I don’t have the ability to plan an elaborate or even not-so-elaborate party. One of the nights of the holiday is a tape night for The Big Bang Theory, and as I have done each year, I host a candle lighting ceremony in my dressing room before we start filming.
Non-Jews can totally participate in Hanukkah celebrations and even candle lighting. It’s not sacrilegious, and we won’t try to convert you. (Jews don’t proselytize; it’s actually a stated rule of our religion.)
Whereas Thanksgiving was a smashing success, Hanukkah is more hectic and complicated for me because there are eight nights. One night is easy: “Let’s all celebrate together! Bring your girlfriend and her kids and her ex-husband! It’s gonna be awesome!” (And it truly was.) Hanukkah means on the nights I work, I light candles alone, and sometimes with friends. But usually it means FaceTime with my boys and trying not to cry. I’m just being honest! I am blessed to have this life, but I am human. And I want to be with my boys all of the time. Whether you are divorced or working or both, it can be hard.
Hanukkah Fact #6: Yes, we give gifts. I know you’re waiting to hear about presents. Let’s talk about it. Because we are fortunate to buy our sons things all year, my ex-husband and I decided to not go nuts on Hanukkah. The boys always had too much stuff and we frequently donate to shelters and to children who have no toys. Hanukkah gifts when I was a kid were pajamas, a calendar for the coming year, chocolate gelt, socks and a dreidel. Period.
RELATED: Try Mayim’s latke recipe
My ex-husband (who is a Jew-by-Choice—he converted before we got married) did not want to have Hanukkah be the downer it was for me (LOL) so we would usually choose one “larger” gift one night and small gifts as well. But not every night; it created too much anxiety and complaining from our kids. So we modeled a relaxed atmosphere around Hanukkah, and it paid off. Our boys don’t expect giant gifts since they both had birthdays just a few months ago; their memory seems good and they don’t complain too much. This is the first year I am giving them gelt which literally means “money” in Yiddish. They have so many specific interests and I want them to pick out what they want.
Hanukkah Fact #7: Hanukkah is a special time. I want my sons to remember Hanukkah as a time of good food, singing together, playing dreidel, and winter—which for us in Los Angeles means the temperature dips below 60 degrees at night. It’s not about the gifts. It’s about our winter festival of lights.
Speaking of lights, this is a holiday when we remember historical miracles and pray for more miracles. The lights we kindle are a reminder of so many things: from one light, others can be kindled. Fire is mesmerizing in its ability to illuminate, to warm us up, and to remind us of the significance of bringing light to the dark places in our lives and in this world. Hanukkah is an opportunity to finds ways light can make its way into the parts of us that feel dark.
Hanukkah Fact #8: Hanukkah reminds us to keep focused on what’s important. Being together—even virtually—is significant. Singing ancient songs connects us to a heritage thousands of years old. Eating comfort food and sharing meals is beautiful. Playing a simple game with a top with four sides can be super fun. Go figure.
In a world full of darkness, Hanukkah reminds us to try again, every year, to remember that miracles still happen. We just need to strike that match and let one small candle light the way.