Learn more about how you can celebrate the Festival of Lights this year amid the coronavirus pandemic

By Andrea Wurzburger
December 10, 2020 08:00 AM
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Hanukkah Explainer
Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Hanukkah begins this week! In honor of the holiday, we're breaking down everything you need to know about the Festival of Lights, from when it starts to how to celebrate safely with your loved ones amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday otherwise known as the "Festival of Lights." The holiday is observed over eight days and is celebrated with a nightly lighting of the menorah, as well as fried foods and prayer.

Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean Revolt in 164 B.C., when a small army of Jewish fighters called Maccabees, led by Judah Maccabee, defeated their Greek-Syrian oppressors and rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Our favorite pop culture explanation for the holiday comes from none other than the Rugrats Hanukkah special.

When is Hanukkah 2020?

Hanukkah begins this year at sunset on Thursday, Dec. 10, and ends on Dec. 18.

Why is Hanukkah eight nights long?

Or, if you're Adam Sandler, "eight crazy nights." Here's why! When the Maccabees were able to gain control of the temple, they needed to cleanse it, rebuild its altar and light the menorah — but they only had one night's worth of oil to light it with. Miraculously, the candles burned for eight nights!

What does the word "Hanukkah" mean?

Hanukkah Explainer
Credit: GETTY IMAGES

The Hebrew word "Hanukkah" means dedication, and it's used because the Maccabees rededicated the Second Temple after, under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 168 B.C., Jews were banned from practicing their religion, were massacred and their temple was desecrated.

No, you're not spelling it wrong.

There are actually 16 different ways to spell the name of the holiday, according to TIME. The most popular are Hanukkah and Chanukah, but the truth is that it's very difficult to translate a word directly from Hebrew, so multiple spellings are accepted.

What are some typical holiday traditions?

The most recognizable of the Hanukkah traditions is the nightly lighting of a special menorah called the hanukkiah, which has nine branches — eight for lighting and one shamash, or "helper" candle that lights the others. While people light their hanukkiahs, they generally recite a blessing.

Hanukkah Explainer
Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Another tradition that is both delicious and meaningful is the eating of fried foods. I know what you're thinking: "I don't need a holiday to have an excuse to eat fried food" — but this is different. On Hanukkah, the traditional foods like potato latkes and sufganiyot (which are a type of jelly doughnut) are fried in oil as a nod to the oil that miraculously lasted eight nights.

Hanukkah Explainer
Credit: GETTY IMAGES

You've heard the song: "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel," but do you know why it's played?

The dreidel itself is symbolic, with four sides with the letters nun, gimmel, hey and shin from the Hebrew alphabet. Those letters stand for "nes gadol haya sham," which can be translated to "a great miracle happened there." Dreidel is played because it is said that, because Jewish people were outlawed from practicing their religion and studying Torah, they would use their dreidel to pretend that they were playing games.

How can you celebrate safely this year?

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to impact people around the world, the holiday season is already looking very different from years past. The CDC recommends that any get-togethers with people outside of your household be held virtually, and urges people not to travel as it increases the spread of the virus.

  • Go virtual! Virtual gatherings bring the opportunity to gather with even more people than you usually would. Set up video calls with your friends, family and neighbors as you light your respective menorahs.
  • Binge-watch all of the best Hanukkah TV episodes and movies
  • Gives gifts and treats to your friends and family. Sending your loved ones sweet treats from your favorite bakery or dropping off a gift at their doorstep will help to brighten (see what we did there? Because it's the Festival of Lights?) their holiday.
  • Celebrate at a distance. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is holding a virtual Hanukkah celebration, there's a drive-thru Hanukkah experience in L.A., a car parade in Chicago, or you can go see Jewish street art around the country. Look for opportunities in your area to celebrate safely!

Happy Hanukkah!