Over the years, the Peretz Centre has celebrated Hanukkah in a variety of ways: an all-ages party, a concert by the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir, a sing-along, a latke cook-off, or as part of a Fraytik tsu nakht for adults while the school programs have a separate party. Depends on when Hanukkah falls in the mainstream calendar.
Hanukkah is the Festival of Light. Most people have heard that this holiday celebrates the Maccabean rebellion that defeated the Greek occupiers of the Temple in Jerusalem, about 150 BCE. It was a victory for the religious and cultural fundamentalists, the priests and temples, over those people who were becoming assimilated into Greek culture.
But there is more to the story. There is a holiday that predates the Maccabees that marked the “return of the light” as we approached the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice. Later in history, this holiday became the modern holiday to mark the military successes of the Maccabees.
A further revision of the holiday took place even later, when the Rabbis added in the famous story of the oil that miraculously burned for eight days. This story tells us that, after the Hebrews reclaimed the Temple, they needed to rededicate it, but there was only enough oil for to light the menorah for one night. However, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days, by which time they were able to make more oil and keep the eternal flame lit. This revision pulled the focus of the holiday away from Judah Maccabee, the military leader, and focused it on God. This is “The Great Miracle that Happened There” that is marked by the four letters of the dreydl (a spinning top which is used in a gambling game on Hanukkah). It is also marked by the tradition of eating oil-rich foods such as latkes and greasy doughnuts.
So is Hanukkah a glorification of a military victory against oppression? A celebration of a return to traditional religious practice? A Winter Solstice festival? A commemoration of a miracle? Regardless of its confused and changing past, Hanukkah was not a major holiday for Jews before the rise of Christianity. Now, with Christmas being so important in our world, Hanukkah is celebrated as a much bigger deal than it once was. And this is not a bad thing, really! It is great to have a time to be with family, to play and care for each other (sometimes with presents so the Jewish kids don’t feel left out at Christmas, although traditionally, small amounts of money, Hanukkah gelt, were the only gifts) and to eat those oily yummy foods!
The major customs associated with Hanukkah are lighting candles, playing dreydl and eating oily foods.
Candles: The hanukiah is a special Hanukkah menorah with nine candle holders, eight ordinary candles, one for each night, plus a shamash (servant), which is used to light the other candles. On the first night, the shamash lights one candle, two on the second night, and so on. The hanukiah is traditionally kept in the window as a beacon to remind passersby of the return of the light.
Oily foods: It is traditional to eat fried foods on Hanukkah to remind us of the miracle of oil. Among Ashkenazi Jews, this usually includes potato latkes. A modern revision of the classic recipe of potatoes, matzo meal and egg incorporates other vegetables: cabbage, zucchini and squash are common additions.
Dreydls: This is a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. A dreydl is marked with the following four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimmel, Heh and Shin, standing for A Great Miracle Happened There. (On Israeli dreydls, there is no Shin but rather a Peh, which stands for Po, meaning here.)
From How to talk Jewish to your kids: A resource guide for secular progressive families, by Daniel Bakan, PhD