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Writing Jewish Characters: Hanukkah

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Welcome to yet another edition of writing Jewish characters, this time focusing on Hanukkah!

(Or Chanuka or Hanukah or Channukkah or any other variation because transliteration isn’t exact - English doesn’t have the ch sound which starts Hanukkah, so we go for as close as we can.)

The name comes from the Hebrew word for “to dedicate.” It is also called The Festival of Lights.

Hanukkah lasts for eight days - the 25th of Kislev through the 2nd of Tevet. This happens between November 27th and January 2nd.

We celebrate eight nights/days of Hanukkah to commemorate the rededication of the Temple after the Jews fought (and won) a war against the much more powerful Assyrians/Greeks. The war ended on the 25th of Kislev (the first night of Hanukkah) and when the Jews returned to the Temple, they found it destroyed. Oil which should have lasted for only one day lasted for eight, the time it took to get new oil to light the eternal light, and that’s why we celebrate for eight days.

In the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah is not a major holiday. In fact, it’s not even mentioned in the Jewish Bible. It’s a later addition. But because of its proximity to Christmas and its similarity in certain ways, it’s been elevated in modern America from its original low-key roots. The do not work rules (see this post) do not apply (except on the Shabbat during Hanukkah, because there will be one).

Hanukkah Celebration

Hanukkah is pretty much an entirely home-based holiday. While prayers are added to every service at synagogue, they’re extremely short, and anyone who doesn’t bother going to synagogue on a daily basis won’t bother going specifically for Hanukkah. Don’t bother including synagogue if you’re writing about your characters celebrating Hanukkah, basically.

The main celebration (and really only requirement) of celebrating Hanukkah is lighting the chanukiyah, which is more often called a menorah (and I will be primarily using this term). To be specific, a menorah is a Jewish candelabra in general, and commonly has a center candle and six branches. In this form, it’s a symbol of Judaism, but not specifically of Hanukkah.

A chanukiyah, which is only lit on Hanukkah, has a center (or side - as long as it’s clearly separate it’s okay) candle and eight branches. While the separate candle must be different, for a menorah to be truly kosher, the other eight candles must be arranged in a straight line, evenly spaced, at the same height. Like the one above, which is untraditional -- but still kosher.

Oil lamp versions of menorahs are also fine, and while uncommon, are still in use. Electric menorahs are not technically legal, but are a good workaround for businesses/people who can’t risk candles.

Not every Jew follows that requirement, but Orthodox ones do. So while many Reform Jews will absolutely use this dinosaur menorah, Orthodox ones won’t - or might use it as a second or third menorah, as long as at least one that they’re lighting is kosher.

Depending on how religious/connected to Judaism your character is, they may or may not have a menorah. Orthodox characters absolutely will, no matter what. Jews in families usually will - and if a kid went to a Jewish nursery/elementary school, they may have even made one in art class (I think my mother still has the hot pink wooden triangle menorah with nuts (like, the hardware type) for candleholders that I made when I was about four). But, say, a Reform college student probably won’t have a menorah of their own, but will light with a student group. And 20-somethings may or may not have acquired one throughout the years since college. The menorah might be something they bought themselves, or it might be a gift - I use a menorah that was made personally for me as a bat mitzvah gift.

Most menorahs use specific candles - while it’s possible to buy one that takes larger candles (my parents have one of those) or an oil menorah (we used to have one of those), most take candles of a specific width which you don’t find many other places.

I took this picture today. From left to right is a yahrzheit candle (used in memorial/mourning rituals), a Shabbat candle, a Hanukkah candle, and a pencil (for size comparison purposes). All “normal” Hanukkah candles are that width, but not all are that height - some are closer to Shabbat candles in height.

A yahrzheit candle burns for approximately 25 hours, a Shabbat candle for about 3-5, and a Hanukkah candle for generally about 1. Yahrzheit candles come in little jars, so you can leave them burning longer - you don’t want to leave the others burning overnight or when you’re gone, but those are usually okay.

Lighting the menorah is done all eight nights of Hanukkah, around (but usually slightly after) sundown. The first night, Jews say three blessings (one for lighting candles, one praising God for doing miracles, and one for doing something for the first time), then use the separate candle, called the shamash (the helper candle) to light one candle, which is placed all the way at the right of the line. On each succeeding night, only two blessings are said (not the one for the first time, the other two), and another candle is added immediately to the left of the first candle. The newest candle is always lit first. Thus, on the eighth night, Jews place eight candles, say two blessings, then use the shamash to light all eight from left to right.

The menorah is then displayed in the window, if it’s safe to do so (aka you’re not going to get killed for being Jewish). A lot of non-Orthodox Jews won’t bother, and will just light their menorah wherever is convenient (in my case, on my kitchen counter). But technically it should go in a window.

Many towns (especially ones with large Jewish populations) will also light large menorahs as part of their winter holiday celebrations.

Businesses (especially in areas with large Jewish populations) will also put out an electric menorah, often as a “see, we’re not all celebrating only Christmas!” to go with their trees and other winter decorations. Unfortunately, these are often not lit properly (wrong direction, wrong number of candles, wrong days), so don’t trust a business (unless it’s Jewish) to tell you which day of Hanukkah it is based on its menorah.

This is somewhere you can add bits for writing - I know I get grumpy when I see stores not even putting out a token non-Christian decoration. Your Jewish characters may notice…or may not. And as much as I dislike it not being there, some Jews dislike it being there as they feel it's too much of a token gesture!

One thing every Jew I've ever spoken to dislikes: Hanukkah-themed Christmas tree decorations. Just.... don't. (Unless you are Jewish and participating in decorating a tree and choose to put a Jewish star or dreidel ornament up -- but it's in poor taste for anyone else to do it.)

That’s it for requirements, but there are other traditions. The other traditional symbol of Hanukkah is the dreidel, a top which has four sides that say the letters Nun, Gimel, Hey, and Shin/Pei, which stand for “Neis Gadol Hayah Po/Sham” (Po = here = Israel, Sham = there = everywhere else), which means “a great miracle happened here/there”. While most people know the song, modern dreidels are rarely made out of clay - wood and plastic are much more common.

(Speaking of that song - if your character grew up in a mostly-Christian area and went to a public school that did a holiday concert, there’s at least a 75% chance that’s the one non-Christian song that was sung at the concert. Even non-Jews will probably recognize it.)

The game of dreidel involves spinning the dreidel, seeing how it lands, and collecting candies, coins, or other small treats based on what you spun. On Nun you do nothing, on Gimel you take the whole pot, on Hey you take half the pot, and on Shin/Pei you put one in. Frankly, it’s kind of boring unless you’re under the age of ten, so while I have a dreidel (scratch that, I apparently have six dreidels) stashed somewhere, I haven’t played the game in years.

Hanukkah is a very food-centric holiday, with the main foods being things that are fried in oil. The two big ones are sufganiyot (jelly donuts) and latkes (potato pancakes). Latkes are usually served with applesauce or sour cream, and everyone has an opinion which is better (applesauce, obviously). The third most major Hanukkah food is gelt (chocolate coins, wrapped in foil), which are often given to children (and often used as the currency in games of dreidel). Other than that, everyone will have their own personal preferences on what’s served at a meal.

Many people host parties or go to celebrations, but that’s not required. If you’re writing a Jewish character with Jewish friends, however, it’s a good time to get together. It’s also a good holiday for doing joint parties with Christmas - I grew up with one group of family friends who were mostly Christian, and we’d light a menorah and then sit on Santa’s lap and ask for presents at our annual holiday party. Nowadays, I do a full Hanukkah party with family (no other holidays, just Hanukkah) and a non-religious Hanukkah/Christmas party with friends, which involves exchanging gifts, eating latkes, and eating gingerbread.

Now, Hanukkah did not used to be a presents holiday apart from small amounts of money (the original gelt) and later chocolate gelt. But because of proximity to Christmas…yeah, presents are a thing. Unlike Christmas, where all the gifts come at once, most families divide up Hanukkah gifts, one to each night, so you end up with eight. However, this does not mean they’re all big gifts - one of mine is always socks, for example.

In my family, when I was growing up, there were rules for Hanukkah gifts. You got one big gift and the rest were less expensive, so the parents didn’t break the bank. When I was very little, my sister and I were each allowed one doll during the holiday, as we always wanted so many and our parents didn’t want dolls exploding and taking over the house (probably smart of them, let’s be honest).

We also have a family tradition that you get gifts on seven nights and on the other night you give money to tzedakah (charity) instead. But you get to choose which night you do that, and it’s usually a middle one rather than first or last. Now that we’re all adults, we do this ourselves, but when we were growing up, my parents always included me and my sister in discussions about where to donate that year.

Hanukkah is in some ways one of the easiest holidays to celebrate, since all you need is the menorah, the candles, something to light them with, and a little bit of counter space. You can say the prayers alone at home in about two minutes, so you don’t even need much time. I, personally, light my menorah every night of Hanukkah, which is my main celebration.

I also like to host people for the holiday, but…that one’s a personal choice. As a non-Orthodox Jew, I often end up hosting my party on Christmas rather than Hanukkah, if only for convenience of scheduling. I also go to at least one Christmas/Hanukkah/winter holiday party every year, where there’s a tree and gingerbread and latkes. It’s a good time to celebrate with friends.

This sort of thing is what your Jewish characters are likely to be doing on Hanukkah - write the party, not synagogue or anything like that.

A Hanukkah bush is NOT traditional. Honestly, it’s a cultural appropriation of a cultural appropriation and it’s really not done unless you’re in an area with almost no Jews (where kids are begging parents for a Christmas tree to be just like everyone else), and even then I frankly find it tacky. Orthodox Jews definitely won’t have one.

Asara B’Tevet (the tenth of Tevet)

And it’s time for one more minor fast day! This one falls on the 10th of Tevet, which can fall between the 13th of December and the 10th of January.

It is a minor fast day (for an explanation of what you do on a fast day, see this post) which commemorates the siege of Jerusalem. The no work rules do not apply.

Honestly, I know very little about this fast day because I personally don’t observe it, but minor fast days don’t involve much other than the fast itself and a few additional prayers anyway. This one got shoved into this post due to its proximity to Hanukkah.

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