History and Traditions of Hanukkah

Hanukkah decorations

Have you ever wondered what is the true meaning of Hanukkah and what are the typical recipes of this Jewish holiday? Hanukkah is one of the most important Jewish celebrations, besides being certainly the best known. Very often it is called the Jewish Christmas, because of the deliberate religious meaning attached to it by commemorating the victory of the early Jewish christian converts against greek-Syrian army of Antiochus Epiphanes. This festival however, has always been considered a minor event, after Christmas took over the early Jewish traditions with the invasion of Santa Claus, reindeer and decorated trees.

For the uninitiated, Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday, which you might have heard as festival of lights. Hanukkah is observed for eight days and starts at sundown on December 24. The alternation of day and night, the most obvious of natural phenomena in modern man's eyes is also the one that more than any other has always been loaded with symbolic and religious meanings. The triumph of light over darkness, after the period of the long autumn and winter nights, where darkness prevails, has fascinated people of different cultures since the origins of humanity.

The Christian feast of Christmas, as is now widely known, has its own roots in the ancient celebrations of the winter solstice and the cult of the sun. From December 17 to 23, during the Saturnalia, the Romans held large banquets, exchanged gifts and lit lamps and candles. December 25, then was remembered as Sol Invictus, which marked the rebirth of the sun and the prevalence of more hours of light on those dark.

Even today, in the period that includes the winter solstice, bright decorations of all kinds fill the houses and streets in many countries of the world, for the Christmas celebrations have inherited the ancient astronomical symbols of Roman paganism. You cannot then help but note that even Judaism possesses a festival of lights, Hanukkah, and that it begins on the 25th of Kislev, which corresponds precisely at the December time in the Gregorian calendar. Is there a link between this Jewish solemnity and the traditions of other peoples?

Hanukkah, often referred to as Chanukkah or the Jewish Christmas, in modern times is the date of the 25th of Kislev that is the day date of the cleansing of the temples after the Maccabean revolt against the greek-Syrians and uprooting their idolatrous pagan rites and the rededication of the Temple and the lighting of the perpetual light of the menorah or candelabrum, but are we sure that there are no other meanings?.

The fact that both the Jews and the Romans and also the Babylonians, Egyptians and northern populations should celebrate at the same time of year festivities centered on the theme of light and often characterized by the lighting of candles, seems to be a remarkable coincidence that require an explanation.

In reference to the pagan Saturnalia and the winter holidays, the Talmud tells a surprising story. The new year falls eight days after the solstice and the Saturnalia fall eight days before the solstice. Through this simple story, the Talmudic Sages intend to convey a very precise idea that since its origin, humanity has felt the need to celebrate the winter solstice and the triumph of light over darkness with idolatrous feasts.

The fact that in the story there is talk of an eight-day celebration brings us back immediately to the feast of Hanukkah, which has the same duration and falls in the same period. The parallel is obvious. The intent of the Sages is to put in relation with the Hanukkah feast of the winter solstice.

In this perspective, Hanukkah is the ancient and universal commemoration of the victory of light, in both astronomical and metaphorical terms, that thanks to Jewish monotheism is deprived of all its aspects related to the worship of the stars. Hanukkah also, in keeping with the festivals then takes on the complementary meaning with a historical nature tied to the cycle of nature.

Hanukkah is characterized by prayers, songs and dances and the children receive gifts and a small sum of money to buy candles and toys. The small toy that never fails is the dreidel, a spinning top with which ancient kids pretended to play, when they were caught by Greek soldiers to study the Torah, the writings of reference of the Jewish religious tradition.

The foods of the holidays are the sufganiyot, sweet donuts and latkes fried potatoes in olive oil, Latkes, a sort of pancakes made with potatoes, onions, matzah flour and salt, of course, fried in olive oil. They are usually accompanied by apple mousse or sour cream and Blintzes, a kind of stuffed crepes fresh and fried cheese.

Today the festival is remembered particularly for its spiritual and symbolic aspect of the victory of the faith and of light over darkness.