Home2018-2019Personal essay: the true significance of Hanukkah

Personal essay: the true significance of Hanukkah

Madeline Stein,


Hanukkah is an ancient holiday celebrated by Jews all over the world, and though it is often overshadowed by Christmas, it has a story and a significance that transcends time. Its message is especially relevant now, with tragedy and turmoil on all sides of the world and in Jewish life. For many people outside the tradition, Hanukkah seems like a sweet deal: presents for eight days and all the fried food you can eat is a tempting offer. But that can cause people (including Jewish people) to forget the true purpose of a holiday that is focused on hope and community.

Hanukkah is called the “Festival of Lights,” and it celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the second century BCE. Jewish forces called the Maccabees (literally, “the hammers”) led by Judah took back the temple in 167 BCE after it was seized by Seleucid forces and an altar to Zeus was erected inside.

As the Hanukkah story goes, the Maccabees, upon reconsecrating the temple, realized they only had one night’s worth of pure oil with which to light the holy lamp inside the temple. The light miraculously lasted eight days, just long enough to procure more pure oil. Now, Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah for eight days and eight nights to commemorate the miracle of the oil.

Though its proximity to Christmas has turned Hanukkah into a gift-giving holiday, it was not originally intended to be one. The commodification Hanukkah has undergone makes it difficult to understand the true reason we celebrate the miracle of the lights. According to the Parents, Kids & Money Survey by T. Rowe Price, American parents spend an average of $422 per child over the holidays, with about a third of families spending more than $500 apiece on kids. Not only does the bustle of that level of holiday shopping put financial stress on many families, but it also eclipses the real purpose of celebrating the winter holidays.

Hanukkah especially has suffered a loss of its core as the Christian-centric American attitude has given kids an expectation of gifts. Many goyim (non-Jewish folks) know of Hanukkah, and know of the eight-day tradition, but don’t truly understand the significance of the holiday. Hanukkah is, in essence, a story of hope and community, not an excuse to receive presents or party for eight days.

For me, Hanukkah has always been a once-over holiday. We would get a gift or maybe two from my grandparents and each of us would light our own little menorah as we said our prayers each night. Sometimes we would have latkes (fried potato pancakes) or sufganiyot (jelly-filled donuts), a tradition meant to call back to the oil that lasted for so long. Hanukkah was a time to see our grandparents, to play Monopoly in the darkened kitchen while the candles of the menorah lit our way and to laugh and fight over chocolate coins as we claimed “lucky” dreidels that were no more likely to win than any of the other colorful plastic tops scattered around our house. Hanukkah was — and is — a time for joy, safety and remembrance, but also of living in the moment.

In the dark days following tragedy, like the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, members of the Jewish community have turned to each other for the support we’ve needed. Willamette’s own Jewish Student Union hosted a beautiful memorial service for the victims in Jackson Plaza and opened up their weekly kiddush discussion to the discussion of how to heal.

Now that the rawness of the event has passed, however, it is time to move forward. We do not forget what it is to mourn, just as we have never stopped mourning the destruction of our temples in Jerusalem, but we can learn how to celebrate the victories we do have. Hanukkah reminds us, as a community, to become whole again, to love each other unconditionally and to remember that life is about loving the little miracles. Let’s make this holiday season a healing one as we learn to go towards the light.


Erica Steinberg

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