This year Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights celebrated each winter by Jewish people worldwide, begins at sundown on December 22nd, and I cannot wait. I love the songs, the chocolate coins, the warm flickering flames of the candles in the menorah, and the time spent gathering close to family and friends. Besides that, it’s an eight-day holiday that involves jelly doughnuts! What’s not to love?
There is even more to embrace about the spirit of this beautiful holiday, though. Hanukkah is truly an exciting and inspiring celebration, and it’s an opportunity to bring meaning and significance into the darkest, coldest time of year. Here are my eight favorite Hanukkah traditions (one for each night, naturally) and the deeper meanings I find in them:
1. Hanukkah shows us that miracles can happen.
At its most basic, Hanukkah is the commemoration of a small, but significant miracle in Jewish history. After the Temple of Jerusalem was captured and claimed by the Greek armies, Jewish soldiers (the Maccabees) finally defeated their enemies. They reclaimed the Temple, and dedicated it back to its original purpose, but hey found only enough oil to light their sacred menorah for one night. They sent someone to get more oil, but it would take eight full days for him to make the trip to secure a new supply. Somehow, the tiny amount of oil that they had burned bright and lasted a full eight days. Hanukkah teaches me to look for the myriad tiny miracles like this in my everyday life. I may not be fighting a real army, but we all wage our fair share of metaphorical battles and we must remember to celebrate and recognize each small victory we achieve.
2. It’s a celebration of grease!
In remembrance of the oil in the Temple that lasted for eight days, during Hanukkah we eat foods cooked in oil, and I mean, nothing is more delicious than deep-fried everything. This is a time to delight in the abundance of oil, knowing that we have enough, and that we can trust that our needs will be provided for. To me, Hanukkah is all about gratitude for the small things (like oil!) and having faith that when times are lean, everything will be okay. It’s also about giving myself permission to indulge. A little decadence is fine, and Hanukkah food is worth it — I can’t think of anything yummier than crispy on the outside, velvety on the inside potato pancakes topped with both sour cream and apple sauce. Or when it’s freezing outside, how about a bowl of hearty matzah ball soup? Then, I have to make sure that I save room for my favorite Hanukkah dessert, sufganiyot, with their sweet, oily dough, stuffed to overflowing with sticky, raspberry jam and rolled in powdered sugar.
3. At the darkest time of the year, Hanukkah brings light into our lives.
It is a symbol of hope and shows us that when life seems bleak and cold, when we feel lost and alone, that there is still warmth in the world. Traditionally, menorahs, once lit, are placed in windows, specifically so that passersby can enjoy them. I’ve always loved this gesture of reaching out to the world beyond the walls of our homes. To me, it means connection and generosity of spirit. We are sharing our light with others, often total strangers, as a beacon of hope, grace, and beauty. The ritual of lighting the candles each evening is particularly significant to me as well. We first light a “helper candle” with a match, and then use that candle to light the others, so we see how a single tiny spark can grow and spread. When I partake in this rite each winter, I realize that it is about so much more than wax and wicks. We are those candles and the flames are our love for all of humanity and creation.
4. Each night we light the candles and let them burn all the way down so that they extinguish naturally.
In the morning there is nothing left of them, but every evening we start fresh with a set of brand new candles, repeating this process for eight lovely nights. Hanukkah reminds me that no matter what, that we can always begin again. There will be pain, setbacks, mistakes. We will experience failure and loss, others will hurt us, things we love will be destroyed or taken from us, but from nothing, we can start over, and we can keep starting over throughout our lives.
5. During Hanukkah, I get to be with loved ones every night.
After a long day at work, I usually come home, rush through dinner, stress about homework, agonize over my to-do list for the next day, and struggle through our family’s bedtime routine. Hanukkah forces me to get off of that hamster wheel of anxiety that is being a modern parent. We gather in quiet reverence as we complete a sacred ritual that bonds us to one another, to our past, and to a large, complex and ancient culture. It is calming and meditative, and shows me that it is important to stop and breathe and remember what I really care about — not my to-do list, but the people and memories I cherish.
6. Hanukkah isn’t really about presents, so this holiday provides me with a respite from commercialism.
Some families enjoy gift-giving and have incorporated this tradition into their Hanukkah celebrations, which is totally great. For the majority of Jewish families around the world, however, presents aren’t a big part of their observation. In my family and friend-circle, we might exchange small tokens of appreciation like food or something we made, but other than that there is no pressure to shop. For me, the best gift that I receive during Hanukkah is presence. I am with my friends and family and I am reminded to be present, enjoying the delights of the moment.
7. The word “Hanukkah” literally means dedication.
In context, it means the dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem back to the Jewish people, however the word “dedication” has several definitions. I see this as an opportunity for personal reflection. Each Hanukkah, I ask myself some important questions as I approach the New Year: how can I dedicate myself even more significantly to the people and things that I love? How am I mindfully and meaningfully dedicating my time and resources? Am I truly dedicated to my values, ideals, and culture, and how might I do better?
8. The holiday lasts for eight nights!
But this is more than enjoying eight nights of festivities. In Judaism, the number eight represents going above and beyond what’s naturally or logically expected. The Maccabees exceeded normal levels of bravery as they defeated the Greek army, and they mustered faith and commitment waiting for the oil in the Temple. They did not give up. The spirit of Hanukkah is the that we must always draw on our reserves of inner strength in times of need or hardship, and that we must have faith in miracles and in ourselves as miracles even when it seems pointless or absurd to do so.