Hanukkah Traditions 101

Oct 10, 2021  |  By Evelina G

Now that the High Holidays are over, it’s Hanukkah season! Hanukkah 2021 begins at sundown on Sunday, November 28, and it’s never too early to brush up on the holiday traditions and make sure you have everything you need.

Learn about where Hanukkah comes from and the most common holiday customs and their origins below!

The Origins of Hanukkah

Hanukkah (also commonly spelled Chanukah) was established in honor of the Maccabees, Jewish resistance fighters in ancient Judea in the 2nd century BCE, who defeated the Seleucid-Greek occupiers who had controlled the Holy Land and banned Jewish worship and ritual practices. The Greeks had purposely desecrated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as one of several drastic measures to prevent the Jews from being able to practice their religion, so when the Maccabees gained control of the Holy City, they sought out to re-sanctify the Temple. It was discovered that there was only one kosher jug of olive oil that could be used for lighting the Temple’s Menorah, which was necessary for rededicating the worship space; however, even though this jug was enough to last only one day, a miracle occurred and it lasted for eight days, just in time for more kosher olive oil to be procured and delivered to the Temple.

The name “Hanukkah” means “dedication” in Hebrew, and the holiday commemorates the return of Jewish freedom and religious ritual life following the Maccabean victory, as well as the dedication of the Temple and the miracle of the long-lasting oil that allowed it to happen.

Religiously, Hanukkah is actually a “minor” festival and not one of the most important holidays in our ritual calendar, but it happens to have a huge cultural importance to Jews today. It particularly grew in significance in 20th-century North America as the Jewish answer to the December “holiday season,” and for many people became a show of Jewish pride in the face of Christian cultural hegemony. And in Israel, many people connect the victory of the Maccabees to the modern re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land.


Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah

We commemorate and publicize the miracle of the oil that lasted eight nights by lighting 9-branched Hanukkah menorahs, either with oil or candles, for eight nights in a row. Starting with one regular candle plus the shamash helper candle on the first night, we increase the number of lights on each night until all nine are lit on the last night.

This is the most iconic and widely observed Hanukkah tradition, and it’s gained the holiday the nickname of “the Festival of Lights.” Some families light multiple menorahs, and might also add electric lights in addition, and so it’s not uncommon to see windows festively decorated with many lights publicizing the holiday!

  • For all the details you need to know on how and when to light a menorah, see our Hanukkah menorah 101 post
  • And don’t forget to get your own menorah from the Land of Israel to celebrate the holiday in style!


Fried Foods

Another way many people commemorate the long-lasting oil in the Temple is by eating foods fried in oil – that’s where latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (a type of soft, fried doughnut) come from! Various Jewish communities from all over the world have their own versions, but the common denominator is deep-fried goodness for a true Jewish comfort food!



Dreidel Games

Legend says that during the Greek occupation of the Holy Land that outlawed Torah learning, Jewish children learned in secret and would pull out a spinning top if a Greek soldier passed by, to give the illusion of simply playing. Alternatively, some historians suggest that the dreidel game was adapted from European spinning-top games played around Christmas time and originating in ancient Greece and Rome.

Whatever its origins, the dreidel has been a classic Hanukkah toy for generations, and is part of a fun traditional game played till this day with its own rules. The beloved spinning top traditionally has four Hebrew letters decorating its sides: Nun, Gimmel, Hay, and Shin, which form an acronym for the phrase, Nais Gadol Heiyah Sham – meaning, “a great miracle happened there” – referring to the miracle of Hanukkah that happened in the Holy Land. In Israel, many dreidels have a Pey instead of a Shin, so that the acronym will more accurately stand for Nais Gadol Heiyah Po – “a great miracle happened here.”

Today dreidels are also often used as colorful decorations and centerpieces for the holiday table, or fun party favors.


Chocolate Coins aka Gelt

Chocolate coins wrapped in silver or gold foil are another classic Hanukkah tradition, whether used in playing dreidel or other gambling games, scattered across the holiday table as a festive decoration, or given out to children and guests as treats.

The coins come from an age-old custom to give children small gifts of money during Hanukkah called “gelt,” or “Hanukkah money” in Yiddish, to encourage learning. Today, some families still continue this custom with actual money, but a general proliferation of chocolate treats in the 20th century introduced a wide-spread adoption of chocolate Hanukkah gelt, and this is a hard-to-miss tradition all over Jewish communities today.



Another popular Hanukkah tradition, particularly in North America, is the giving of gifts! While it wasn’t always a custom, gift giving became an increasingly popular extension of giving Hanukkah gelt in post-WWII America, and spread to other Jewish communities around the world. It’s common to give a significant other or other close family member or friend one special gift in honor of the holiday, while many parents have a practice of giving their children a different gift on each of the eight nights.

Not every night has to be an extravagant gift, however; a classic American tradition is to give practical gifts on at least some of the nights, like clothing or books or school supplies! There is also a growing trend of dedicating at least one night to making charity donations, known in Hebrew as tzedakah, in lieu of giving gifts.

Some offices, schools, and other groups in recent decades have also adopted a method of gift-giving knows as “Mystery Maccabee” or “Hanukkah Harry,” inspired by the “Secret Santa” tradition of non-Jewish spaces. Instead of each person buying gifts for everyone else, everyone is randomly allocated one person to surprise with a secret Hanukkah gift ahead of or during the holiday – which can help keep costs down and is a fun way to spread holiday cheer!


Charity Giving

It’s common to commemorate Jewish holidays by giving to charity, and Hanukkah is no different. Some families have a tradition of asking their children to clear out and donate old toys before receiving their presents; others, in addition to or in lieu of giving gifts, make donations to tzedakah (charity) in a loved one’s name. Some people simply increase their regular charitable giving in honor of the holiday.

In addition, many charitable organizations, including Jewish ones, make a last push for donations around this time, as their accounting year ends on December 31. A great way to counter the commercialization that sometimes exists around the holiday is to take this time to give a donation to your favorite organization!