The Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes, King of Syria and the Selucid Empire (175-163 B.C.E.), was both cruel and arrogant—typical of tyrants. The title he chose for himself, Epiphanes, is Greek for “god-manefest.” One of the unfortunate provinces under his rule was Judea. He became persuaded—probably by some Hellenized Jews—that the Jewish religion was the root cause of the widespread  opposition to the process of Hellenization. He undertook the first systematic effort to wipe out Judaism.

In  addition to a bunch of other heinous actions, he ordered his soldiers, and compelled the Jewish population of Jerusalem, to sacrifice pigs at the Temple—the most sacred site in Judaism. (To Jews, swine is considered ‘unclean.”) Antiochus’s oppression sparked a revolt, successfully led by the Maccabee family.  It is from this revolt, and a subsequent incident, that the holiday of Hannukah came about.

The Books of Maccabees are the most famous volumes in the “Apocrypha”—the legends that are part of Jewish teachings. These are historical writings about the revolt against the Syrian monarch by the Jews . But they do not mention the “miracle” upon which the celebration of Hannukah is based.

The Temple (Solomon’s Temple, the first Temple) in Jerusalem, as it was:

Solomons Temple
Solomon's Temple

The Celebration of Hannukah

Hannukah is not a religious holiday, but a secular one, in that there is no Jewish law requiring us to celebrate it–yet it is the most widely observed Jewish holiday in the United States. The reason for this is singularly un-Jewish:  It occurs in December, right around the time of Christmas. Due to the fact that the Jewish calendar is a lunar one, Hannukah can actually occur any time between late November and late December, depending.

Because Western Jews live in a predominantly Christian society, and because of Hannukah’s proximity to Christmas, many parents have converted it into a Jewish form of a major Christian holiday. Hannukah is, after all, one of our happiest holidays.

Back to the Jewish revolt against Syria in 167 B.C.E. and the Maccabees. As I said, the Syrians defiled the holiest place in Judaism, the Temple. After the revolt against Antiochus was successful, the revolutionaries regained control of Jerusalem. As recorded by the historian Josephus, the Jewish troops wept when they saw the Temple’s degradation, and resolved to restore it to ritual purity. According to Jewish tradition, they could find only one cruse of uncontaminated olive oil—only sufficient for one day’s use. This was a big problem, as it would take eight days to prepared ritually permitted oil. However, so the legend says, a miracle happened and the small amount of oil continued to burn the entire eight days. To commemorate this event, Hannukah is celebrated for eight days.

We use a menorah—a candelabrum that has eight level openings and a ninth, raised opening. While the original used oil, today most people use candles. Here’s a classic example, but there are literally thousands of designs:


Jewish law requires that the candles be placed near a window, so that they can be seen from the street, because the rabbis of old declared we should “publicize the miracle.” You can use any kind of candle, even tea lights, but as far back as I can remember these little colored Hannukah candles – found in almost every supermarket, in almost every neighborhood around this time of year–were ubiquitous and have come to symbolize the holiday for me. I couldn’t find a photo of the candles, but this is the box:


A popular children’s game s spinning the dreidl, which is a kind of top:


On each side, a Hebrew letter is printed: Nun, Gimmel, Hay, Shin, which makes the acronym “Nes Gadol Haya Sham—A Great Miracle Happened There [in Israel].” ( In Israel, it says “Here.”) Bets are made on which letter will be face-up when the dreidl stops spinning; depending on the bet, the spinner either takes the pot, half the pot, puts money into the pot, or no one wins. Originally, the bets were made for nuts (as in walnuts!), but today we use chocolate candies wrapped to look like gold coins, called Hannukkah Gelt (gelt is Yiddish for money.)


OK, now back to Christmas. It’s not part of the old Hannukah tradition, but if we really want to keep it popular among our kids, gifts have to be part of it. And we up the ante considerably; we give the kids presents on each of the eight nights. LITTLE presents! (And maybe one really good one.)

Among American Jews, the latke, a fried potato pancake, is the traditional food eaten. Because the Hannukah story concerns oil, most of the holiday foods are fried. (This is the only part of the holiday my Chinese husband can get behind.) In Israel, they prefer a jelly donut. Another creeping (but highly discouraged) tradition is the so-called “Hannukah Bush.” This is only for those most assimilated families, or those of mixed religions. There is no two ways about it—it’s a Christmas tree pretending to be Jewish.

[LOL! I looked for a photo of a Hannukah Bush and this is representative of what the Google search engine came up with]:

A Small Dose of Spirituality

Most people who have read a little about Kabbalah probably know that this mystical tradition of Judaism talks a great deal about light—what it calls the Endless Light. The Kabbalah teaches that through our actions we draw and increase this divine light into the world or diminish its presence. ( I feel the need to stop and emphasize that these teachings are in no way connected to the Kabbalah Centre, where Madonna and other celebrities study “kabbalah.”)

According to Jewish law, when we light the Hannukah menorah we are prohibited from using its light–from reading by it, or doing some other task by it. Instead, we are supposed to simply look at the light. All year long we are looking at what we see in the light, but on Hanukkah we are to focus on seeing the light itself. We are to fill our eyes with the light of Hanukkah so that when Hanukkah is over, we will continue to see our lives in this special light. What is special about the light of Hanukkah?

When King Solomon wrote in his famous work, Ecclesiastes, “everything is vanity . nothing is new under the sun” he was talking about what it is like to see the world in the light of the sun, in the light of nature.

But the Zohar, the chief work of Kabbalah, teaches us everything is new when seen in the light beyond the sun.

The light of Hanukkah is the light beyond the sun, it’s the light beyond nature, it’s the light of miracles. In that special light, the world looks like a miracle.

Albert Einstein once said: “There are two ways of looking at the world—either you see nothing as a miracle or you see everything as a miracle.”

Hannukah reminds us to see everything as miraculous.

LIGHT-hearted Hannukah

Happy Hannukah–ENJOY!

Jon Stewart and Stephan Colbert on Hannukah

Lewis Black on Hannukah vs Christmas

Adam Sandler’s Hannukah Song

Hannukah began at sundown on Friday December 11, in the year Hebrew year 5770.

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I’m glad you explained the dreidl and the chocolate gold foil wrapped coins.
I always see the gold wrapped chocolate coins and wondered.
Aren’t they also used for bar-mitzvahs or bat-mitzvahs?

I seem to recall a TV show or maybe it was a movie, heck, I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast, but seem to recall a show whereby the character pretended to be Jewish and became quite popular and he always went to bar-mitzvahs for the food and chocolate coins.

And is the old testament that Christians and Catholics use, the same old testament the Jews use?

BTW, went to the library yesterday and requested the book by Rabbi Telushkin, since they did not have it.
Supposedly they will look into ordering it and let me know.
It’s hard to say if they will order it with the cuts in funding for our library.

Oh, and off topic, are you a fan of Craig Ferguson?
We just returned his book – ‘American On Purpose’ – and it’s quite good.
He’s had an amazing life that my husband and I could relate to in so many ways, and he really is an intelligent person.
He’s self-taught for the most part.
We love Craig Ferguson, and love him even more since reading his book.


People of all faiths need to remember these Four Great Religious Truths:

1. Muslims do not recognize Jews as God’s chosen people.

2. Jews do not recognize Christ as the Messiah.

3. Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the leader of the Christian

4. Mormons do not recognize each other at Hooters or the Liquor Store.

(thought we could use a bit of humor today)


LOL!! j’avaz, I needed that.

(The Wasilla Public Library does not recognize Sarah Palin?)


LOL javaz!!

I really needed that after reading the health care thread.


LOL…thanks javaz, here’s one more:

5.) The Christian fundies say that the rest of us, (non-fundie believers), are all going to HELL!!!!

Have a nice day!


Wow Cher, I had no idea about this beautiful celebration.
I guess my Catholic upbringing just turned me off to organized religion in any way that I never bothered to find out about Jewish traditions. It actually makes so much sense I want to join in.
The idea of looking to the light and not using the light is very thought provoking.
It puts the Santa and baby Jesus stories to shame.

Pepe Lepew

Anyway, such a nice article, Cher.

Are you old enough to remember a really long time ago, Saturday Night Live (this is back in the John Belushi days) actually did a really cute skit about the meaning of Hanukkah?


Thank you so much, Cher, for writing about Hanukkah.
I had no idea and you summed it up in a way that even I can understand.

My mother was Austrian and Catholic, and we did a version of latke, as do the Polish, which is potato pancakes more or less, no?
But fried in oil.

Now, would you be so kind as to explain Rosh Hashanah?
My birthday is in late September and there have been years whereby it starts or ends on my birthday and I’ve always wondered what that holiday meant.

The Jewish faith or religion or tradition has always been such a mystery.
And then you have Orthodox Jews, and aren’t those the ones that wear the long curly hair and black?

Oy vey, how do you keep it all straight?

And what does, Oy Vey (?) mean?

I was raised Roman Catholic, but yet I know there is an Orthodox Catholic sect, and Greek Orthodox Catholic sect, and they are supposedly more strict, but I don’t know the differences.

We do have a very close friend that partakes in some dinner with his Jewish friends, and I don’t remember which holiday it is, but before eating unleavened bread and eating special foods and drinking wine, they read from a book, which would be a Catholic version of the bible, but our old Testament.

Is that Hanukkah?
Or is it another holiday that coincides with Easter?

Thank you again for such a wonderful article and you, Cher, are a writer.
(do you write? and if so, are you published?)


A truly wonderful post and very enlightening. I love traditions and try hard to keep up with most of them living here in a place so far away from my family, my friends and my roots.
Holidays are tough but my memories manage to keep me afloat.

Thank you for this delightful glimpse into your world, into your life, I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Embarrassing (and funny) story time. When I was 18 I escaped Boulder and moved to the Bay Area. I got a receptionist job at a “newspaper publisher” on Mission Street in San Francisco (back when Mission Street was still the ghetto). This company was basically a phone room selling ad space for the “Jewish Community Press,” the “Italian-American News,” and the “Senior Citizens Commerce News.” They’d cut articles out of the SF Chronicle (literally) and glue them onto sheets, surrounded by these pathetic little ads they sold in the phone room.

Well, I was young. I was thrilled to have a job in San Francisco and living independently. I also wanted to be a writer. I asked if I could write an article about Hannukah for the “Jewish Community Press.” They said sure, so I went to the library and did some research and wrote my little article about the Macabees. (This was the first time I’d ever heard of Hannukah.) I was so proud! I sent my article home to my parents. Of course, later, around the time when the IRS came after my bosses and they suddenly shut down the place, I realized they never distributed these “newspapers” anywhere except to the companies who were dumb enough to buy ads.

Later on, the boss who didn’t have to leave the country started a new business selling Elvis plates.


Thanks. I’ve got books sitting on my bookshelf on the Jewish experience I’ve been meaning to get to, but they gather dust. That, and by brief dabbling into Hermetic Kabbalah doesn’t quite qualify me to comment on the ‘stream’ as passed on within the Jewish tradition.

I can’t help but take a broader view, though. That cultures throughout the Northern Hemisphere all adopted similar light-defeating-darkness celebrations, Yule, Divali, etc. Many Jewish festivals are of course different than others as existing in definite history, not cosmic myth (which many a devout Hindu, for example, will still insist really happened). In that Kabbalistic bit about the ‘light’, forgive me if I spied some Persian influence – perhaps they were developed independently – such themes as darkness and light are universal symbols hearkening back to the campfire in primitive times – and hardly went to the length of harsh dualism which would be a better indicator (as with the Essenes – diffusion theories which are of course rarely given much attention among Judeo-Christian scholars). Although indeed, the subtlety of Kabbalah would discredit my initial assertion of such influence.

It is so interesting to be reminded this was under the Seleucid Dynasty. My experience with this empire is usually focused further east.

I’ve heard many couples compromising and syncretizing the two seasonal ethnic/faith traditions. Often goes over my head, but always interesting, nonetheless.


There is version that I know both Swedes and Germans use. It is basically the same but you use the left-over mashed potatoes from Sunday’s big meal. This may be a depression/war/frugal time recipe. (?)


Cher, Delightful article and happy Hannukah! I love that line “Hannukah reminds us to see everything as miraculous” and your description about how to relate to the light. Those little details hold an entire way of life in them. What more do you need? Amazing. And I love that Hannukah bush. Hehe.



Thank you so much for such an informative article. I knew some things, but not everything. I never knew Hannukkah was a secular holiday. I was just watching a program yesterday, not only did the host discuss the holiday, she also demonstrated how to make latkes and the jelly donut. The donut part was very cute because her grandchildren were “helping” — up to their elbows in flour, jelly, and sugar. I’m definitely going to try your recipe, just to see if I can.

Thanks again Cher — very interesting.


Hi- I loved this, and am indeed familiar with the traditions partly out of interest and partly out of family. My sister-in-law and nephew are Jewish, and I once spent Hanukkah-Christmas with her family and had the most wonderful time! We did have a Christmas tree (though her mother worried how she’d explain it to the neighbors – who were actually doing the same) but put stars of David on it along with Christmas ornaments. The whole thing was about warmth of family and friends, the feelings of connectedness and spirituality, and I STILL have the tiny bottle of perfume I got on Eighth Night. It’s all joyous which is really the point.


Cher, I always learn so much from your posts. This one of my favorites. Thanks for the history lesson, the insights, and the laughs. They are all very appreciated on this Monday afternoon.


Wonderful post, Cher! Many people know generally what other Hanukkah is but not much detail at all. Thanks for sharing your “light” with everyone!

And Happy Hanukkah all!


Thanks Cher
Great post with great pics!
Love that Hannukah Bush !!
and the links…
We celebrate both Christmas and Hannukah -the kids really make out!