Each year, Hanukkah falls in close proximity or during Christmas according to the Hebrew calendar. Because of that, the two are celebrated side by side under the “Happy Holidays” moniker.
But in terms of religious significance, Hanukkah doesn’t rank as high for Jews as Christmas ranks for Christians.
“It’s hard to not make a big deal of out Hanukkah living in America, and I’m not sure it’s a bad thing,” said Rabbi Rhoda Silverman of Temple Emanuel in Reisterstown. “That’s not a problem for me as long as we don’t forget about everything else that makes us Jewish.”
Jonathan Schwartz, senior aide to Baltimore County Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond and a member of Temple Emanuel, sees Hanukkah as having two roles in the lives of American Jews – religious and cultural.
“Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are definitely more important holidays from a religious point-of-view,” he said, referring to the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, respectively. “[Hanukkah’s] taken on a role in our culture, our Jewish American culture, that is bigger than it is in our religious culture.”
So what exactly is Hanukkah all about? On each of Hanukkah’s eight nights, Jewish families around the world light the hanukkiyah, a nine-branched candelabrum also known as the Hanukkah menorah. It commemorates the miracle of the oil.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was re-dedicated in 165 BCE, after the Jews had gotten control of their land and temple back from the Seleucid Empire of Syria, they had only enough oil to light their seven-branched menorah for one day, but it miraculously lasted eight days. Thus, Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday, which falls from sundown on Dec. 8 to sunset on Dec. 16 this year.
Other common traditions include eating oil-rich foods like donuts or potato latkes, which are fried potato pancakes.
While Rabbi Silverman and Schwartz both give their children gifts on Hanukkah, they make sure that the holiday is put in context. Schwartz and his family attend synagogue on the High Holidays, and the Rabbi makes sure her family keeps its own religious traditions.
The Silvermans light multiple hannukiyah every night, sing songs and invite family and friends over for all eight nights.
“It’s ultimately the family’s responsibility to create tradition,” Silverman said, which is how she thinks small children, excited by Hanukkah’s gifts, can understand the religious significance of the other holidays. At Temple Emanuel, religious school students learn about the holidays throughout the year.
At the end of the day, though, Hanukkah is “a minor holiday,” Silverman said.