For many Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Xennials and Millennials, one of the most memorable moments of Hanukkah was Adam Sandler singing “The Chanukah Song” on Saturday Night Live on December 3, 1994. For those unfamiliar with the song, it features a lot of names that rhyme with -ah and would probably be rated G, with only the final verse veering into PG-13 territory. More importantly, the most educational verse is:
The Festival of Lights.
Instead of one day of presents
We have eight crazy nights!
Right there, in two short lines, Sandler managed to engage generations of SNL viewers in some impromptu intercultural learning. According to Sandler, “There's a lot of Christmas songs out there… and not too many Chanukah songs… So, I wrote a song for all those nice little Jewish kids who don't get to hear any Chanukah songs.” (Schliss, 2012) Sandler’s backstory illustrated his empathy for Jewish children’s lack of culture-specific music within U.S. pop culture. What he said is true – there are far more Christmas carols than Hanukkah songs played on the radio. In U.S. popular culture, Hanukkah tends to get overshadowed by the often-concurrent holidays of Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas. While Hannukah is designated as a minor Jewish festival, it is celebrated by over 14.7 million Jewish people around the world as well as an enlarged population of 6 million people (those who lack Jewish ancestry but self-identify as Jewish as well as all non-Jewish household members who live in households with Jews). The sheer number of potential celebrants seems to confirm Hanukkah’s status as an important holiday in global culture. (Wikipedia, 2019)
According to Rabbinic scholars, Hanukkah (alternatively spelled Hanukah or Chanukah) is likely derived from Hanukkat Hamizbeah, meaning the Rededication of the Altar. “In the year 166-165 B.C.E., the Hasmoneans (called Maccabees in Greek sources), led a rebellion against the Greeks which culminated in the rededication of the Temple on the 25th of the month of Kislev.” (Conservative Yeshiva Online) After the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple from the forces of Antiochus IV, they discovered that there was only enough ritual olive oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for one day. They lit the menorah to rededicate the alter in the Temple and it continued to burned for eight days, which was the amount of time it took to have new oil pressed, prepared, and ready for use. Therefore, Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights because the miracle took place that involved oil and fire.
During Hanukkah, many families exchange small gifts each night. Hanukkah Gelt (chocolate coins) are given to children as gifts. The importance of oil is also celebrated by preparing and eating fried foods including latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly donuts), and bimuelos (spherical doughnuts). Traditionally, the menorah (also called hanukkiah) is set up at a prominent window or near the door leading to the street so that people walking past can see the candles and be reminded of the festival. “On each day, Jewish families light candles on a hanukkiah (a nine-branched candelabrum), starting with one candle and adding one more each day. The candle used to light the other candles is known as the shamash. Blessings over the candles are chanted and festive songs are sung, commemorating the Maccabean Revolt.” (Avey, 2011) After lighting the candles, it is customary for children and adults to play with (i.e., spin) the dreidel (four-sided spinning top).
In the 1970s, Hanukkah became a more visible festival in the public sphere of the United States. Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson called for public awareness and observance of the festival and encouraged the lighting of public menorahs. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter participated in the first public Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony of the National Menorah held across the White House lawn. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush displayed a menorah in the White House. In 1993, President Bill Clinton invited a group of schoolchildren to the Oval Office for a small ceremony. (Wikipedia, 2019)
According to the Jewish calendar, 2020 is the Jewish Year 5781. This year, Hanukkah begins at sunset on December 10th and ends at nightfall on December 18th. Please feel free to greet celebrants by saying “Hanukkah sameach!” (“Happy Hanukkah!”), “Chag urim sameach” (“Happy Festival of Lights”), or "Chag sameach!" (“Happy holiday!”)
Written by: Emily Kawasaki
- Avey, Tori. “Hanukkah - Learn All About the Jewish Festival of Lights.” Tori Avey, December 18, 2011. https://toriavey.com/hanukkah-the-festival-of-lights/.
- Conservative Yeshiva Online. “The Miracle of the Oil: Why Is Hanukkah Connected with Fire & Why Is It Eight Days? | Sefaria.” Sefaria. Accessed December 1, 2020. https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/85895.1?lang=bi.
- “Hanukkah.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, January 8, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanukkah.
- “Jewish Population by Country.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, March 25, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_population_by_country.
- “Jewish Population By Country 2020.” World Population Review, 2020. https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/jewish-population-by-country.
- Motion Picture Association, Inc, and National Association of Theatre Owners, Inc. “Classification and Rating Rules,” July 24, 2020. https://www.filmratings.com/Content/Downloads/rating_rules.pdf.
- Schliss, M. “Adam Sandler – The Chanukah Song.” Genius, 2012. https://genius.com/Adam-sandler-the-chanukah-song-lyrics.
- Wolfe, Helen. “Millennials, Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Z: The Cutoff Years for Each Generation | Considerable.” Considerable, July 22, 2020. https://www.considerable.com/life/people/generation-names/.