The first full day of Hanukkah, or Chanukah, is Dec. 13, but the Jewish holiday actually starts at sundown Dec. 12.
Chanukah includes the daily lighting of a chanukiah, also known as a menorah, a nine-branched candle, said Rabbi Rebecca Reice of Congregation Shir Ami in Cedar Park.
“[Chanukah] means dedication,” she said. “So the story that we tell at the time of Chanukah is the story of dedicating ourselves to our Jewish lives and we celebrate that.”
The chanukiah is lit for eight days because of a story that after the Maccabees, a Jewish military group, won control of Jerusalem from the Greeks, they cleaned up and rededicated the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, she said.
“The Maccabees only found enough consecrated oil to light the chanukiah in their Temple for one day,” Reice said. “But miraculously, it burnt for eight days.”
Festive foods eaten during Chanukah are very oil-based because of this, Reice said, including donuts and potato pancakes called latkes.
“Usually the congregation will have a party where we’ll light candles, and we’ll sing and eat crazy oily fried foods,” she said.
During Chanukah, playing with a four-sided top called a dreidel is a popular game. Hebrew letters—nun, gimmel, hey and shin—are written on each side of the dreidel and each letter has a value.
“The true meaning of the four letters on the dreidel is as an acronym for the phrase ‘Nes Gadol Hayah Sham’ or ‘A Great Miracle Happened There,’ in reference to the Maccabees winning their war,” Reice said.
The holiday moves around each year, she said, because it falls on the 25th of Hebrew month Kislev, which differs from the Gregorian calendar.
“We call Chanukah the festival of lights,” Reice said. “I think there’s a great logic that so many of our religious traditions identify this darkest season of the year and put some kind of festival of joy and festival of light there.”
The last day of Chanukah this year is Dec. 20, when it ends at sundown.