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Winter Holidays: Hanukkah – the Festival of Lights

Winter Holidays: Hanukkah – the Festival of Lights
By Dasha Peipon

Grownups talking and singing songs, while sitting around the table, with the light of hanukkiah candles on the windowsill, illuminating the dining room. Children playing the game of dreidel and counting their chocolate gelts… A night of Hanukkah looks something like this in a Jewish home in December.

Sometimes people assume Hanukkah is as big for the Jewish community as Christmas is for the Christian church. Lynda Balfour from Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson explained that Hanukkah is actually a rather minor holiday, typically celebrated at home with family. The misconception probably comes from both holidays celebrated in the winter. But there are major differences between them. Christmas is the day of Jesus Christ’s birth, celebrated in most of the world on December 25 (it is on a different day in some countries). Hanukkah is an eight-day festival of lights, celebrated at different times each year, according to the Jewish calendar (this year, on December 2-10) with a nightly hanukkiah lighting (a nine-branched candelabrum only used for Hanukkah as opposed to the seven-branched menorah used for Shabbat), special prayers and delicious fried foods.

The Miracle of Hanukkah

In the second century BC, Israel was ruled by the Syrian-Greeks, who tried to force the people to accept Greek culture and beliefs. Against all odds, a small group of faithful Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God. When they tried to light the Temple’s Menorah, they found only enough lamp oil to keep the light going for one day. But through God’s miraculous provision, the oil lasted for eight days. Now, every evening during the Hanukkah festival of lights another candle is lit to remember this wonderful miracle.

More oil, please!

Since the Hanukkah miracle involved oil, it is customary to eat foods fried in oil. The Eastern-European classic is the potato latkes (pancakes), served with applesauce or sour cream. An Israeli favorite is the jelly-filled sufganiyot (doughnuts) which in December begin appearing in a great variety of flavors in Jewish bakeries.

Children’s Favorite Holiday

A holiday that lasts not one, but eight days! Doughnuts with jelly, games, songs and gifts for kids… No wonder it is a favorite holiday for all the Jewish children! Sometimes they will get small wrapped surprises from family and friends. But it is more common to give children money as gifts. Traditionally, it used to be coins. Today youngsters often get chocolate coins in gold foil wrapper. And paper bills, too. They play the dreidel – a game with a four-sided top, traditional for the holiday. Spin it and win a pot of money! Whether the pot is filled with real paper bills or chocolate coins, that is always the most desired prize. Everyone else still gets a special treat for Hanukkah. After counting their newly acquired riches, the children are encouraged to donate a portion of it to the temple or for the needs of those less fortunate than themselves.

Rachel Friedman, mom of Leah (10) and Eitan (7) shares: “My children love singing holiday songs, after we light the candles, and gathering with friends and family each night to celebrate. We typically don’t give them presents ourselves, but they do receive a modest gift of money from their grandfather, which they always save and use to buy small presents for friends or special treats throughout the year.”


Dasha Peipon celebrated Hanukkah with some of her Jewish friends and mastered spinning the dreidel to win the prize!


Learn more about Hanukkah and look for recipes on


Happy Hanukkah!

If you’d like to get involved with a local Jewish community or do some Hanukkah shopping, stop by at Beth Israel, located on 5315 Old Canton Road in Jackson or call 601-956-6215.

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