Celebrations

Hanukkah 101: A Quick Guide to Its History and Celebration
What is Hanukkah, and how did it develop into the celebration we know today? Uncovering its roots reveals a fascinating narrative from ancient times.

What is Hanukkah, and how did it develop into the celebration we know today? Uncovering its roots reveals a fascinating narrative from ancient times.

Many cultures and religions have a “festival of lights.” Hindus all over the world light lamps, asking Lakshmi for wealth and wisdom during their fall Diwali celebrations. Every Chinese year ends with a Lantern Festival, heralding the coming spring and new year. The Jewish holiday Hanukkah is also called a festival of lights, but there’s much more to it than that. What is Hanukkah, and how did it develop into the celebration we know today? Discovering its roots reveals a fascinating narrative from ancient times.

The Maccabean Revolt

ReformJudaism.org discusses the events behind the Hanukkah story. Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a Greek Seleucid king during the middle of the 2nd century BCE. The Seleucid Empire stretched from western India to modern-day Israel. The Encyclopedia Britannica explains that Antiochus wanted to strengthen Hellenistic cultural influences throughout the region. To solidify power, he appointed Menelaus as Jerusalem’s high priest. The former high priest, Jason, led a revolt against Menelaus and his supporters.

In retaliation, Antiochus invaded Jerusalem and enforced Hellenism. Jewish religious practices were officially forbidden and punishable by death. Antiochus erected an altar to Zeus in the Temple and ordered sacrifices performed in front of an idol in his likeness. These events spurred Judah Maccabeus, a member of a prominent priestly family, to lead a revolt and reclaim the Temple.

Yet Haaretz shares an alternative explanation for the Maccabean revolt. Historians suggest that it was a civil war in Judea, pitting Hellenist Jewish people against traditionalists. Antiochus sent multiple armies to put down the rebellion but was foiled each time. With an attack by King Mithridates I of Parthia in 167 BCE., Antiochus was forced to defend his empire. This allowed the Maccabean rebels to retake Jerusalem and the Temple in 164 BCE.

A Miracle in Jerusalem’s Temple

Curiously, the event that’s central to the Hanukkah holiday doesn’t even appear in I or II Maccabees. The Talmud tells the tale, mentioning that Judah Maccabees’ forces found only one jar of oil left when they reclaimed the Temple. That jar should have only lasted one day, but the Temple’s eternal light burned for eight days while a messenger traveled in search of more oil. These eight days of light are encapsulated in Hanukah’s eight days along with its menorah, a nine-branched candelabra that holds the candles that are lit throughout the celebration.

A Festival of Lights

Hanukkah’s date shifts every year because the Hebrew calendar uses lunar months. The holiday always begins on the 25th day of Kislev, which can fall between early November and late December. Every night during this holiday, one candle is added to the menorah and lit by a servant candle called a shamash. The first candle is placed on the right side, and successive candles are added, moving from right to left. Chabad explains that these lights burn after sunset to bring light into the darkness. Blessings are said while the candles are ignited and to commemorate the Hanukkah miracle.

The lights symbolize the Temple miracle, but fried foods also recall the long-lasting supply of lamp oil. My Jewish Learning mentions that Ashkenazi Jewish people typically fry and serve potato cakes called latkes, while Sephardic Jewish people fry and serve doughnuts. Other central Hanukkah traditions include giving gifts and playing with dreidels, spinning tops emblazoned with four Hebrew letters: nun, gimmel, hay, and shin. The dreidel’s four letters stand for the phrase “Nes gadol hayah sham,” which translates to “a great miracle happened there.”

A Holiday of Hope 

Like many modern holidays, Hanukkah is a commemoration. Its story focuses on resistance against authoritarianism and religious oppression. The history behind the Maccabean revolt may not yet be clear, but Hanukkah remains symbolic of survival, persistence, and hope.

Spring Celebrations Around the World
Spring Time Celebrations

Spring Time Celebrations

If you’re ready for asparagus, morels and fresh spring lettuce, you’re not alone. It has a been a long winter. Shubenacadie Sam and Wiarton Willie, famous weather forecasters from Groundhog Day, were no help in deciding whether winter would continue or not in the north, splitting the vote. Punxsutawney Phil sides with Sam in predicting an early spring. March 21 marks the spring equinox, and it’s hoped that the flowers will be in bloom soon after. Even if they aren’t, find a celebration of spring and enjoy this time of renewal.

Thailand Water Festival

In Thailand, in mid-April, come for the Songkran Water festival. It’s a huge public water fight held in honor of the new year. The water represents the cleansing of negative influences. It might be summer in the southern hemisphere, but you can still think of it being spring. Come for the festival and hope that the flowers will be in full bloom when you return.

Japan Shunbun no Hi

The spring equinox is a national holiday in Japan. They actually celebrate three days before and three days after, but the actual day when the equinox occurs is a day to honor nature and show affection for living things. Part of the Japanese tradition of Shunbun no Hi is to visit their ancestral graves and clean them up. People leave flowers and incense on the graves, then go visit with other family members as part of their spring festivity. They also clean their home and start new activities to renew their life. Farmers pray for luck for the upcoming growing season.

Granny March

In Bulgaria, Granny March or Baba Marta marks the arrival of spring. Legend says that the final snow of winter is just when Baba Marta is in the midst of spring cleaning and is shaking out her feather bed. Beginning on March 1, people give martenitsi, a red and white figure which can almost resemble a tassel, to wear until the first signs of spring appear. Once the trees begin to bloom, the martenitsis are tied to the branches in honor of the season.

The Washington D.C. Cherry Blossom Festival

If you can’t wait until May for Tulip festival in Ottawa, take a trip south to Washington D.C. for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. It begins March 20 and runs through April 17 in the capital of the United States. Much like the tulips are a sign of friendship between Canada and the Netherlands, the cherry blossoms celebrate the ties of the U.S. to Japan. It’s spring and the flowers are in bloom. What better reason could you need for a break from all the snow?

Hindu Holi Celebration

In Southeast Asia, the festival of Holi is also called the Festival of Colors. Legends tell two different tales of why the tradition of throwing powdered pigments at each other got started, but the main idea is that good conquers evil. In one story, Holika attempted to burn her nephew, Prahlad in a bonfire, but he was saved by Lord Vishnu in a strange turn of events. In remembrance, Hindus light bonfires and celebrate Prahlad’s victory. Much of festival is fun, but it also has spiritual significance. It’s a time to renew friendships and forgive those who have hurt you in the past year.

Celebrate Renewal

It doesn’t matter when the first buds of spring occur, it’s just a given that the season will change and the earth will come alive. Enjoy the festivals of spring and remember that you’re given new opportunities to make your life all you want. Take time this year to think about the changes you need to make to make your dreams come true.