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.
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.
The Christian and Pagan Roots of Halloween
Halloween blends Pagan and Christian traditions.
Halloween is a billion-dollar industry in Canada, ranking only second behind Christmas among profitable holidays. As with many modern holidays, it appears to be a mingling of Christian religious observances and Celtic pre-Christian traditions originating in an older festival known as Samhain. So where does Samhain end and Halloween begin? Keep a dish of sweet treats nearby to nosh on as you read through the mysteries behind this popular spooky celebration.
Is Halloween a Celtic Import?
The Canadian Encyclopedia reveals that Halloween’s most popular traditions came to North America sometime in the 1800s. The first documented instance in Canada of costume wearing occurred in Vancouver in 1898, while “trick or treat” was first recorded in Alberta in 1927. The Canadian Encyclopedia’s entry further suggests that these customs likely migrated here with Irish and Scottish immigrants. South of the border, the United States Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center appears to back up the assertion that Halloween came to us from Celtic Europe, with its observance rooted in older Samhain practices.
Samhain: A Time for Harvests and Spirits
The modern Irish term “Samhain” (pronounced “SOW-in”) refers to end-of-harvest revelries. It’s hard to ascertain when ancient Celts began marking the end of autumn, but the oldest documented example appears in Irish literature from around the 10th century C.E. Prior to that, Irish mythology mostly existed as spoken word traditions. Samhain’s festivities were held starting at sundown on October 31 and ending at dusk on November 1, a date that originally lined up with the Celts’ New Year. It’s also one of the four major seasonal holidays, along with Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasadh, on the ancient Celtic calendar.
Besides heralding the arrival of the cold season, these pre-Christian Celtic peoples believed that the barrier between the land of the living and the realm of the dead thinned at Samhain, allowing the souls of the dead to enter the waking world. Bonfires were lit to honor them and encourage their return to the Otherworld, a vast supernatural plane in which fairies, demons, deities and departed souls dwelled. Because these beings were thought to wander around on Samhain, offerings of food and drink were left out so that they’d leave the living alone.
Christianity and All Hallows’ Eve
Multiple sources have pointed to Catholicism’s adoption of pagan holidays into its own liturgical calendar. For instance, the December 25 date of Christmas also coincides with older celebrations of Saturnalia in ancient Rome and mid-winter celebrations across the rest of Europe. The American Folklore Center remarks that Pope Gregory I actively sought to absorb older customs and celebrations from non-Christian cultures in hopes of converting more people.
As Church leaders demonized native Celtic beliefs and condemned their Druids as devil worshippers, the All Saints feast was also moved to November 1. The day before became known as All Hallows’ Eve, yet the association of October 31 and November 1 with the mythology of Samhain never completely faded. Older Celtic practices of playing pranks, wearing disguises to confuse the dead and leaving out treats to mollify malicious spirits continued.
Modern-Day Celebrations in Canada
While some fundamentalist Christians condemn Halloween as evil, the Canadian Encyclopedia disclosed that 68 percent of Canadians participate in its festivities every year. Followers of Celtic Neopagan spiritual paths might mark the day with bonfires, magical and ritualistic celebrations, and gatherings with friends and family. Moreover, the people who buy candies, dress up for trick or treat and throw Halloween parties come from many different faiths. With pagan and Christian contributions to the modern holiday and the childlike wonder and fun it can bring, there’s little surprise as to why it remains popular with Canadians in the 21st century.
Commemorating the March Equinox
The Spring Equinox is the point in the year where the Earth’s tilt is perpendicular with the sun.
This year, spring officially begins on March 20. This is the day when the earth’s axis is not tilted away from the sun’s rays but rather is perpendicular to them. The equinox is thought to be the day the earth gets a day and night of equal lengths, but in reality, it depends on how the sunrise and sunset are defined. Legend says that the spring equinox is the only day of the year that an egg can be perfectly balanced on its end. It’s not true, but its fun to try.
The spring wakes us, nurtures us and revitalizes us. How often does your spring come? If you are a prisoner of the calendar, it comes once a year. If you are creating authentic power, it comes frequently, or very frequently. Gary Zukav.
Holidays and Festivals Around the Equinox
Around the world, spring is celebrated in different ways. In North America, Easter is a rite of spring that is calculated based on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. This is why the date of Easter changes every year; it’s a lunar date. Another Abrahamic tradition of spring is the Jewish Passover, which generally falls on the first full moon after the spring equinox. In Mexico, visitors attend spring equinox in Teotihuacán, because legend says that portals of energy open at this place.
Burn Your Socks
In Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., the spring equinox brings in the boating season. Boat owners and employees celebrate by burning socks, because the boating community only wears socks through the winter. Astrologers see the vernal equinox as the beginning of the astrological year. They celebrate the day as International Astrology Day.
Ring in the New Year
In Iran, Nowruz, the New Year, occurs during the March Equinox, based on the Persian astronomical calendar. Jamshid, a mythological king of Persia, is said to have ascended to the throne on this day. He is remembered with two weeks of celebration. The day is a secular holiday for Iranians, but it’s a sacred day for Zoroastrians. Nowruz has also been added to the national calendar of Canada since 2007. It’s a time for spring cleaning, then decorating houses with garlands of roses and jasmine. New clothes are made for the celebration.
Honor Your Ancestors
In Japan, the spring or vernal equinox day, is an official public holiday. It’s a time to visit the graves of your ancestors and pay homage to them. Grave sites are cleaned. Offerings might be made to the ancestors. Homes are cleaned up. Many people use the spring equinox to make life changes. It’s also a day to celebrate nature after the long winter. Families get together, because many people have the day off.
See the Shadow Disappear
There are two days of the year when you can see a shadow disappear. Calculate the latitude of your location then subtract that number from 90. This is the angle measure you need when you put a stick in the ground. Using a compass, find south. Point a stick or ruler in that direction. Use a protractor to measure the angle to put the stick in the ground. At noon on March 20, the shadow of the stick will disappear. It won’t on any other day except the September equinox.
March 20 is the day people around the world celebrate the culture of oral history. In 2017, the theme is “transformation.” The day had its roots in Sweden, but other countries picked up the tradition. It has taken time to become more common in Canada, but many organizations do recognize the day. Tell a story to your family as you await spring. Even if the trees aren’t budding or the flowers blooming, the spring equinox marks the time when you will soon see the first signs of renewal.
The Magic of a Winter Wedding
December seems to be a time for getting engaged. It’s a magical time of year. There’s snow on the ground. Homes are decorated for all the upcoming festivities. Families are together for the holidays, which makes it easier to make that special announcement. After the engagement, it’s time to pick a date. Although June is a traditional month in which to hold your special day, consider a winter wedding. You’ll have a year to plan, which gives you plenty of time. But even beyond the time factor, there are many other reasons to choose the enchanting months of November through February for your wedding day.
It’s the Off-Season
Summer and fall are the most popular times of year to hold a wedding. Winter comes in dead last. Having a wedding in January means that you aren’t fighting with dozens of other couples for the same venues and vendors. You may even score a discount on your location, DJ, or photographer. It pays to ask if there is an off-season rate for a venue. Guests may get discounts on travel if your date doesn’t fall on a major holiday. Hotels often offer better pricing during winter months. Ask a travel agent about when you can get the best winter rates into your city.
When marrying in the winter, you do need to make special plans for problems that may occur. Don’t forget to consider these things when planning.
- Inclement weather – ask the “what if we have a blizzard?” question as you are booking your vendors and venues. Many places have a weather-related cancellation policy.
- Lighting – The days are shorter, which means you won’t have outside light for pictures if you want them. Make sure you remember to get the pictures you want before it gets dark.
- Warmth and comfort – With summer weddings, guests can often walk from their hotel to the church or reception. You may need to make other arrangements for a winter ceremony. It may also be a good idea to have a few blankets on hand for older guests who get chilled more easily.
- Flowers – While some flowers may be difficult to obtain, you aren’t completely limited during this season. You may even have some options that you don’t have in the summer. Check with your florist in plenty of time to order what you want.
Watch the Holidays
Roses go up in price around Valentines’ Day, and florists are extremely busy. What you saved on your reception hall may be spent on flowers or other accommodations if you aren’t aware of the dates. Taking a honeymoon over certain time frames can dramatically increase the cost too. However, if the entire family is coming home for the Christmas holidays, it could save a lot of money for your guests by holding the ceremony while they’re home. You know your family best. Think about their needs too.
The Beauty of the Season
Winter color schemes can be more dramatic than summer ones. If your reception hall offers fireplaces, you can have a cozy fire going to add to the ambiance. Candles are another way to increase lighting and improve the overall atmosphere. You may even have the option of a sleigh ride to the ceremony, instead of the traditional limo. Brides and guests can get out their furs and boots, which adds a special fashion element to the day.
Winter weddings can feel even more intimate than one held in the summer, but planning is required. Consider the special elements before you cross a January wedding off the list. You may be surprised how much the season has to offer. You’ll have an excuse to take an anniversary trip every winter thereafter. What more could you ask for?
Teach Charity to the Children
Whether you belong to an organized religion, or do not do the religion thing, you can still enjoy everything that the winter season brings. The holidays are not just for individuals who believe in Christianity, but are for people who are looking to enjoy a little charity and good cheer. If you are trying to help your children or the children of your church understand that the holidays are more about giving than receiving, the following should help you get started:
1. The Food Bank
There are so many families that struggle any time of the year, but especially during the holidays. Christmas is a time when families get together and share in the joy of the season. Without a good meal, and often times without a place to eat, families are unable to enjoy the holiday. Contact your local food bank to see what types of food they need. Head to the grocery store with your children and let them pick out food items from the list that they would enjoy eating. Point out that if they would like the food, then other children will probably like it, too. This will help them realize that actual people will be receiving the food, and they want to enjoy what they eat as much as your children do.
2. A Toy Drive
Children love nothing more than to peruse the aisles of a toy store. Look online or ask around town for information on any toy drives that are going on in your area. Find out what items are needed and take your kids to the toy store. As with the grocery store, allow the children to find toys that they would enjoy playing with. It might be harder to purchase the toys for someone else, rather than keeping it for themselves, but that is what will make it memorable and special for your children.
3. Your Neighborhood
Charity during Christmas doesn’t have to come from a store. You do not have to donate to a local charity. Service can be done in your own neighborhood for people that you already know. If there are shut-ins or widows in your neighborhood, have your children draw some special holiday pictures for them. Allow your kids to help you bake a batch of cookies. Take a plate of cookies and the drawings to your neighbors who are unable to get out and enjoy the season. Encourage your children to visit with the elderly individuals so that they can get the most from the experience.
In addition to these tips, look up other organizations that take donations during the holidays, or that will benefit from your service and allow your children to do their part. While they may complain about doing charity for another person, it will instill in them the values of service and caring for others. Christmas is the perfect time to get started, whether you believe in Christianity or not. If you do want to serve in the name of religion, contact the Universal Life Church Canada and consider becoming a minister yourself.