Even though listed officially as a “minor” Jewish holiday, Hanukkah has turned into the most celebrated Jewish holiday in the U.S. There’s nothing minor about Hanukkah anymore.
Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York City, says the notion of calling Hanukkah “minor” really presents a misnomer and it is only a term used when discussing holidays that impart major restrictions on people’s behavior.
Major holidays include Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and require restrictions on eating and other behavior, giving them titles of major holidays. But just because Hanukkah offers a festival void of the restrictions, it doesn’t make it any less important, Olitzky says. “Outside of the technical framework of Jewish law, Hanukkah is a major Jewish holiday,” he says. “We have really done ourselves a disservice by using the term minor.”
Hanukkah means rededication, and it and offers Jews a reminder of three distinct points regarding light, freedom and dedication. The lack of strict rules make the holiday easy — and fun — to celebrate, which may be why research now shows Hanukkah is more celebrated — whether through the lighting of candles, gift giving, attending a party or a full celebration of the festival in Jewish practice — than even Passover.
As holidays, festivals and customs formed in the Christian and Jewish religions both took entirely different paths. And while Christianity locked onto Christmas as its main celebration, Judaism had long given Hanukkah secondary or tertiary importance. Hanukkah begins every year on the 25th of the Hebrew month Kislev, which this year falls on the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 20.
Olitzky credits the increase in interreligious marriage and the holiday’s proximity to Christmas for its surge in popularity. But taking Judaism mainstream may be the main reason. “Judaism has entered the marketplace of ideas in American culture,” Olitzky says. “Hanukkah has become the national Jewish holiday. I think it has helped people celebrate.”
A major tenet is celebrating how light can lead through dark periods of time, which is recognized with the lighting of a menorah (a candelabrum that offers more candles as the eight-day Hanukkah celebration continues) often placed in a window. Another key point is the celebration of religious freedom and the importance to fight for it by remembering that the festival itself commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by foreign forces. Overall, the holiday is a rededication to spiritual life.
Cultural differences still remain in the celebration of Hanukkah, including in the way the festival honors the use of oil (a one-day supply of oil miraculously lasted eight days during the rededication of the temple’s menorah after the Maccabees’ successful revolt to regain the temple). The Eastern European tradition of using oil to make potato pancakes, or latkes, is popular in America, whereas in Israel that same oil creates kiosks full of jelly donuts. Of course, the fried dough, menorahs and dreidel game prove popular worldwide. The influence of secularization on American culture has, however, turned the emphasis on gift giving during Hanukkah into mainly a U.S. tradition.
Olitzky says the rise of Hanukkah in America hasn’t helped people understand the holiday any better, but it has helped them simply celebrate it more. The popularity of the festival certainly has put Hanukkah in a new light.
MORE: Pop Culture Hanukkah