This past spring, I wrote a debatably handy guide to Passover (aka “Jewish Easter”) for Gentiles. It was such a smash-hit sensation that some of my non-Jewish readers told me they're even planning to combine the two holidays next year. I'm really looking forward to your horseradish and parsley-stuffed chocolate bunnies, Gary. Thanks for writing and good idea!
Meanwhile, Hanukkah is underway, and the goyim have been bugging me to produce a similar guide explaining the other big Jewish holiday, since “Googling is such a hassle” and “Wikipedia is a tool of the Zionist conspiracy.”
So, here it is, by popular demand, everything you need to know about Hanukkah—or, if not everything, at least enough to help you impress a Jew into going to bed with you, you naughty Gentile, you:
What's it all about?
The story of Hanukkah is a lot like the story of Christmas: You have the miracle of God visiting Earth in the form of a magic baby formed from the union of a normal lady egg and a heavenly angel sperm, and we have a really terrific lamp.
OK, so maybe they're not all that similar, but they are both arbitrarily celebrated in the wintertime to steal some pagan thunder, and they both involve the giving of gifts and the consumption of honey-baked ham. Ha, just kidding; we eat pancakes made out of grease and potatoes.
Hanukkah is a celebration of revolution. From 167 to 165 B.C.E., a Jewish tribe, the Macabees, waged a bloody revolt against the occupation of their land by the Greeks under King Antiochus. When the Jewish warriors reoccupied their temple after the liberation, they had only enough oil in their lamp to burn for a single day, but it “miraculously” lasted eight. The legend says God did it, I say rationing, but let's not nitpick.
The Hanukkah tradition, then, is all about being stoked that God was looking out for us that week. Over the years, we've continued to thank God for doing that for us—and the crusades and the holocaust are the thanks we get?
Whatevs, God. I'm totally not feelin' ya' on that!
And yet we keep lighting the candles and getting all Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam on the big guy, just in case He should, you know, wake up. But let's get back to the guide!
When is Hanukkah exactly? Is it just me or do you guys keep moving it around?
How very perceptive of you! Sometimes we forget you even notice us. In fact, on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah is scheduled for “sometime around the end of the year.” Nobody knows for sure when it's supposed to actually start, so we rely on word of mouth. Many of us miss the first day and have to “double up” on the second day by lighting two candles (though, technically, we're supposed to do that anyway).
This year, we're pretty sure it started last Friday, so it's not too late to ask one of your Jewish friends (if you don't have one, get one. Trust me, we come in handy when you get a DUI) to let you come over and join in the candle lighting. And have I mentioned the potato pancakes?
Tell us about the “eight days of presents” thing again!
Christmas lasts for only one day, suckers! Sure, there's Christmas Eve, but what's that for? Going to bed frustrated? And we all know that “12 days” stuff is just in the song. No, it's all about that one fun-filled a.m. present-opening orgy and a sock full of candy.
But Hanukkah's an eight-day party, y'all! It's just night after night of non-stop candle-lighting, prayer-reciting and modest present-opening action! When I was a kid, the Christian kids would be all, “Check out my new BMX bike,” and I'd be, like, “Well, I got two pairs of socks, a can of macaroons, a flashlight, three batteries and a tree planted in Israel in my name, booyah!”
What is a “dreidel” for and why would a grown up want to play with a 16th-century toy?
The dreidel is a little wooden spinning top with Hebrew letters on it, adapted by Jews from top-based games used for centuries by Europeans. The common explanation of how it came to be associated with Hanukkah is that the Hebrew letters on its sides form the acronym for “A Miracle Happened There.”
I prefer the explanation of the rabbi who argued that it was for a game Jews pretended to play when they were studying the Torah (you know it as “parts of the Bible”). That would fool the Greeks into thinking we were gambling, when we were secretly practicing our forbidden religion and plotting the International Banking and Spicy Mustard Conspiracy.
I like the latter explanation because it excuses us reform Jews (it's like Jewish Lite) from not knowing anything more about dreidels than their spinning function. See, we don't really want to play “teetotum”—we're just gettin' our spin on to honor our ancestors' faking out the Ancient Greeks.
Is there a conclusion?
Yup. The conclusion is that Hanukkah is no big deal. And thus Jewish parents have had to work pretty hard to convince their kids that a week of candle-lighting is just as good as the spangly pageantry of Christmas. Imagine being a kid and seeing all those magical lights everywhere and knowing it doesn't have anything to do with you.
But one thing that definitely makes Hanukkah special, and worth keeping alive, is that a lot of people have gotten killed just for maintaining it. Hanukkah is quite a scrappy survivor of a holiday!
Therefore, I light these candles, and say this prayer, and invite you to join me.
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