Fabienne Viner-Luzzato explains the traditions behind Chanukah and some of the delicious treats that come with it
This year we will face another battle with our five-year-old son as we explain why Father Christmas will not deliver presents to our house and why we don’t have a Christmas tree without hurting his feelings. Aren’t we lucky that Chanukah usually falls around Christmas time?
The history of Chanukah
The celebration of Chanukah dates back to a time when the Jewish people were fighting against the Greeks for their freedom in Jerusalem. Greek King Antiochus wanted the Jewish people to abandon their religion and worship Greek gods. The Jewish temple was destroyed and there was only enough olive oil to burn the eternal flame in the temple for one day.
Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days so the temple could be rebuilt. That’s why Jewish people celebrate Hanukah and light the menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum lit during the eight-day holiday. That is also why food prepared in oil, usually fried food, is prepared and eaten during Chanukah.
Both Christmas and Chanukah commemorate miracles: Christmas with the virgin birth and Chanukah with the miracle of the Jerusalem temple oil. While one of the central motifs of Christmas is the Christmas tree, Chanukah’s is the menorah. Both appear as branches filled with light.
The dreidel is perhaps the most famous custom associated with Chanukah. The story is that the letters nun, gimmel, hey and shin, which appear on the dreidel, combine to form the phrase nes gadol haya sham (a great miracle happened there). The story goes that Jews played with the dreidel in order to fool the Greeks when they were caught studying the Torah, which was forbidden by law.
During Chanukah, children traditionally receive money from their parents and other relatives. In Yiddish, this is called Chanukah gelt. Today, parents and family members give their children Chanukah gifts, although the idea of gelt has survived in the form of chocolate coins.
Latkes (potato pancakes) are traditional for Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews, while Sephardic (Mediterranean) Jews traditionally eat sufganiyot; fried doughnuts filled with jam or cream. In my Tunisian tradition we eat yoyos (fried, cakey doughnuts dipped in honey) or farka (traditional couscous cake with dates and spices) on the sixth day of Hanukah: the festival of the girls.
That said, most modern Jews don’t let tradition get in the way of delicious food and plenty eat a traditional Christmas meal. That’s why I always make sure I mix the two traditions. I also organise cooking workshops in which children can build a gingerbread house, as well as a gingerbread Christmas tree or menorah.
Both festivals offer a time for recollection, giving and bringing families together. They are also an excellent time to donate time, money, food or gifts to the less fortunate.
Need a recipe or advice? Want to book a cooking lesson or a cooking party? Contact Fabienne at firstname.lastname@example.org