8 Interesting Things You May Not Know About Hanukkah

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Even many gentiles know that Hanukkah is an annual Jewish holiday that lasts for eight nights in December that sees celebrants light the menorah, eat delicious fried latkes and spin a dreidel to win some chocolate coins. But there is much more to this beloved holiday than just good food, candles a wooden top and a week’s worth of presents.

If you want to learn more about the Festival of Lights, here are eight interesting things you may not know about Hanukkah.

1. Hanukkah Isn’t A Major Jewish Holiday

“Major” may be a subjective term but while Hanukkah is one of the most famous Jewish holidays, it’s not considered among the faith’s sacred High Holy Days. In fact, Hanukkah isn’t even mentioned in the Torah because the events that inspired it happened after Moses wrote that tome. But because of its proximity to Christmas, Hanukkah became a widely celebrated holiday beginning in the late 1800s.

2. Doughnuts Are The Most Popular Hanukkah Treat In Israel

You probably think of latkes when Hanukkah comes up and while those delicious potato pancakes are part of many celebrations, they aren’t the treat preferred by most. In Israel, the most popular food item sold during the eight-day holiday is reportedly sufganiyot, a doughnut traditionally filled with strawberry jelly. These sweet treats have also become quite popular in American Jewish households during Hanukkah.

traditional hanukkah sufganiyot donuts with strawberry jelly
Adobe

3. The Dreidel Has Some Cool Origin Stories

Dreidels are now considered a quaint icon of the Hanukkah season, used to play a simple game that involves chocolate coins or other treats. But the origin stories of these four-sided tops are actually pretty cool. Some rabbis have claimed that Jews in ancient Greece used them to study the Torah (which was illegal) while passing it off as just playing a game, while other people have said the letters on them equate to an elaborate numerical puzzle that means “Messiah.”

The actual origin of the dreidel may be much more dull but these tales all add to its lasting legacy.

4. Gift-Giving Is A Recent Addition To Hanukkah

The giving of Hanukkah gifts isn’t a traditional part of the holiday but is rather one was started by American Jews celebrating it. This is thought to have become mainstream in the 1920s and is credited with helping Hanukkah become one of the most popular and widely celebrated Jewish holidays.

5. The ‘Menorah’ Isn’t Actually A Menorah

The iconic symbol of Hanukkah is the candelabra with nine candles, eight of which are at equal height with a ninth one elevated slightly above them. However, this type of candelabra is actually called a Hanukkiah. The word “menorah” is Hebrew for “lamp” and an actual menorah is a candelabra with seven candles all at the same height.

cropped view of man lighting up candles in menorah on black back
Adobe

6. The Candles Need To Be Lit A Certain Way

The miracle at the heart of Hanukkah is one about a jug of pure olive oil that was found inside the Temple in Jerusalem during a revolt and, while only containing enough oil to light the temple’s menorah for a single night, the flame lasted for eight nights. The lighting of the candles one by one is meant to symbolize the miraculous flame getting more impressive with every passing day.

The candles themselves are placed into the menorah from right to left but are lit left to right as each new one is added.

7. Hanukkah Is Celebrated At The White House

While America has yet to elect a Jewish president, Hanukkah has been celebrated at the White House every year for decades. Jimmy Carter was the first president to take official notice of the holiday in 1979, and each president since has recognized Hanukkah with a special celebration that includes a lighting of the menorah. Here, you can see Reuven Rivlin, then Israel’s president, lighting the White House’s menorah as a guest of President Barack Obama in 2015.

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Nechama Rivlin, Reuven Rivlin admire menorah at White House
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

8. There Are 16 Ways To Spell The Holiday’s Name

You’ve probably seen the name of this particular holiday written several ways over the years and there’s a good reason for this. Since “Hanukkah” is transliterated from Hebrew letters, there are more than a dozen ways to spell the name of the holiday. The most common ways found in English are “Hanukkah” or “Chanukah.”