1. You’re spelling it right—no matter how you spell it.
Hanukkah—or Chanukah, or Hanukah, or, well, we could go on—is a transliteration of a Hebrew word (see: fact number 2). Since the Hebrew language uses different letters than our alphabet, any spelling in English that can be pronounced “hanukkah” is fine.
2. Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for dedication.
That’s the gist of the holiday: It commemorates the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled by the Greeks in 164 BC. The story goes that the Jews, led by warrior Judah the Maccabee, revolted against Antiochus and reclaimed the Temple.
3. It’s also known as the Festival of Lights.
While restoring the Temple, the Jews found that there was only enough oil to kindle its lamps for one night. According to tradition, though, that small amount of oil miraculously burned for eight nights until more could be procured. That’s why Hanukkah is an eight-night celebration.
4. Technically, that’s not a menorah.
A menorah is a lamp with seven branches, which is what would have been used in the ancient Temple. On Hanukkah, Jews light what is called a hanukkiah, a lamp with nine branches. Eight are for the lights that are kindled each night of the holiday; the ninth branch is for the shamash, or “helper” flame, which is used to light the others. Traditionally, oil is supposed to be used for lighting these flames. These days candles are usually used instead.
5. There’s a multi-step process to this celebration.
One candle is added to the hanukkiah each night of Hanukkah, starting from the right. The newest candle is lit first. Jewish families say a series of blessings as they light the candles, and then usually sing songs that recount the Hanukkah tale. A classic: “Mi Yimalel,” or “Who Can Retell?”
6. Jelly donuts are delicious.
And on Hanukkah, it’s traditional to eat lots of sufganiyot. Because of the crucial role that oil plays in the holiday, fried foods are a major food group during these eight nights, hence the beloved jelly donut. Got more of a thing for savory treats? Latkes, or potato pancakes, are also awfully popular.
7. Hanukkah’s not really about presents.
Purim (which commemorates the story of Esther in early spring) is Judaism’s gift-giving holiday. However, Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas led many Jews in the Western world to start exchanging gifts at around the same time as their Christian friends and neighbors. Who doesn’t love gifts?
8. Playing dreidel involves more than just spinning tops.
The game of dreidel is actually a means to an end—winning gelt, coins that are either chocolate or (if you’re lucky!) real money. It’s one of the more authentic things that you can do at your Hanukkah party this year, since the game’s been played for centuries.
Each side of a dreidel has a Hebrew letter on it: nun, gimmel, hay and shin. Together, the four letters are an abbreviation for the Hebrew phrase Nes gadol haya sham. That means, “A great miracle happened there,” referencing the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Wanna play the game? My Jewish Learning has the rules.
Learn more about the Passover.