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11 Festive Facts About Hanukkah

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Every winter, Jewish people around the world spend eight nights lighting candles, eating latkes, and spinning dreidels. But beyond the menorahs and fried food, what’s Hanukkah really about? Here are 11 festive facts about Hanukkah.

1. DON’T WORRY ABOUT SPELLING IT WRONG.

The Hebrew word Hanukkah means dedication, and the holiday is colloquially called the Festival of Lights. But you’ve probably seen the word spelled a variety of ways, from Hanukkah to Hannuka to Chanukah. Because the word is transliterated from Hebrew, there’s not an exact English equivalent for the sounds made by the Hebrew characters. So technically, you could spell it khahnoocca and you wouldn't necessarily be wrong, but most people would probably be confused.

2. IT CELEBRATES A MILITARY VICTORY AND MIRACLE.

During the eight nights of Hanukkah, Jews light a candle to pay tribute to a miracle that occurred back in 165 BCE. The Maccabees, an army of Jewish rebels, conquered the Syrian-Greeks, who had outlawed Jewish practices and defiled the holy Temple in Jerusalem by putting an altar of Zeus in it and sacrificing pigs. The Maccabees then rededicated and reclaimed the Temple, and although they only had enough oil to light a lamp for one day, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days.

3. IT’S NOT THE BIGGEST JEWISH HOLIDAY.

The Torah makes no mention of Hanukkah, and the Jewish religion places much more importance on holidays such as Passover and Rosh Hashanah. But because Hanukkah usually occurs in December, around Christmas time and winter break when people of many religions are celebrating the season, Jews living in the United States in the early 20th century began placing more importance on the holiday. Today, Jews around the world (even in Israel) have followed suit, and Hanukkah is more important than it once was.

4. THE FOOD ISN’T THE HEALTHIEST.

Traditional Christmas foods include fruitcake, gingerbread, ham, and candy canes, and Hanukkah has its own set of customary foods. To celebrate the holiday, Jews fry foods in oil to acknowledge the miracle of the oil. They may chow down on latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), kugel (noodle or potato casserole), and gelt (chocolate coins).

5. THE LETTERS ON A DREIDEL FORM AN ACRONYM.

At Hanukkah, kids play with dreidels, which are small spinning tops. Tradition says that before the Maccabees revolted, Jews weren’t legally allowed to read the Torah, so they would study the holy text while pretending to gamble with spinning dreidels. Each of the four sides of a dreidel has a Hebrew character: Nun, Gimel, Hay or Shin. The four letters are said to stand for the phrase "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham"—meaning "A great miracle happened there"—which refers to the miraculous, long-lasting oil.

6. THE DATES CHANGE EACH YEAR.

Because the holiday is based on the Hebrew calendar, there’s no set Gregorian date range for Hanukkah. While it always starts on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev, that date can correspond to anywhere from late November to late December. This year, Hanukkah is particularly late, beginning on the evening of December 24 and going through January 1.

7. SOMETIMES HANUKKAH COINCIDES WITH THANKSGIVING.

In 2013, Hanukkah overlapped with Thanksgiving, giving rise to countless Thanksgivukkah memes and jokes about cranberry-filled sufganiyot and sweet potato latkes. Sadly, the next Thanksgivukkah won’t occur until 2070, when the first night of Hanukkah will coincide with a particularly late Thanksgiving dinner.

8. SOME JEWS GIVE MONEY RATHER THAN GIFTS.

Traditionally, Jews celebrated Hanukkah by giving their kids and relatives gelt (money) rather than wrapped gifts. But because holiday gift giving plays a big role for both Christians and secular people, many Jews now give and receive Hanukkah presents instead of money. To acknowledge tradition, though, most Jews give children gelt in the form of chocolate coins wrapped in gold or silver foil.

9. YOU’LL NEED TO LIGHT 44 CANDLES.

Hanukkah menorahs—which some Jews prefer to call a chanukiah, to differentiate it from the true menorah at the Temple—have nine branches, eight for each night plus a helper candle called a shamash that lights the others. Jews light the candles in the menorah from left to right, lighting a new candle, candles for the previous days, and the helper candle each night. You’ll need to use a whopping 44 candles to celebrate Hanukkah since you light two candles the first night, three the second night, four the third night, and so on.

10. YOU CAN BUY SCENTED CANDLES FOR YOUR HANUKKAH MENORAH.

A big part of Hanukkah is lighting candles, but some Jews opt for a less conventional approach. Besides buying candles in different color and non-toxic varieties, there are also scented candles available for Hanukkah menorahs. If you want to make your home smell like vanilla, raspberry, or even sufganiyot, there’s a scented candle for you.

11. HANUKKAH SONGS AREN'T REALLY A THING.

Christmas songs start playing on the radio long before Thanksgiving, but although you might know a few Hanukkah songs, music isn’t a huge part of the Jewish holiday. Well-known songs such as "I Have a Little Dreidel" and "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah" are mainly for children, and songs like Adam Sandler’s "The Chanukah Song" are mostly for laughs.

All photos via iStock.

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The Legal Reason Why Public Christmas Displays Feature Reindeer
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The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” But in practice, not everyone agrees on what abiding by that clause means in real-life situations. For instance, can a courthouse or a public park feature a nativity scene?

According to the Supreme Court, maybe not—or at least not unless it includes a menorah and a plastic reindeer, too. In the 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly, the court established a precedent that became known as the “reindeer rule," a legal standard that has governed public displays of holiday cheer ever since.

The case hinged on a Rhode Island display that was owned by the city of Pawtucket but was located in a park owned by a nonprofit organization. The annual display, which dated back 40 years, included a nativity scene (also known as a creche or crèche) in addition to other Christmastime symbols like reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, a Christmas tree, and a “seasons greetings” banner. The justices ruled in favor of the nativity scene, arguing that there was a secular argument to be made about including the religious reference:

The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday recognized by Congress and national tradition and to depict the origins of that Holiday; these are legitimate secular purposes. Whatever benefit to one faith or religion or to all religions inclusion of the creche in the display effects, is indirect, remote, and incidental, and is no more an advancement or endorsement of religion than the congressional and executive recognition of the origins of Christmas, or the exhibition of religious paintings in governmentally supported museums.

In the case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor put forth a legal rule of thumb called the “endorsement test,” writing that governments can run afoul of the Establishment Clause by appearing to endorse a specific religion or a belief, rather than being inclusive of a variety of beliefs. “Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,” O'Connor explained.

According to the National Constitution Center, “Court observers at the time saw the presence of the reindeer as broadening the purpose of the display.” And so the reindeer rule was born.

Then, a 1989 Supreme Court ruling in reference to two holiday displays inside and outside the Allegheny County courthouse in Pittsburgh made this standard even more clear. A nativity scene inside the courthouse that prominently displayed a banner that read, in Latin, “Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ,” with no secular objects on display, was ruled unconstitutional. Meanwhile, a display outside the courthouse with a menorah, a Christmas tree, and a sign that declared the city’s “salute to liberty,” as the case ruling puts it, was allowed to stay. With the overtly Christian indoor display, nothing counteracted the government endorsement of “a patently Christian message.”

As Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in his opinion, “Although the government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus,” while the menorah display combined “with a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty does not impermissibly endorse both the Christian and Jewish faiths, but simply recognizes that both Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society. The widely accepted view of the Christmas tree as the preeminent secular symbol of the Christmas season emphasizes this point.” This ruling only applies to government property and government sponsored displays, though, which is why it's completely fine for private entities like churches to erect public displays of nativity scenes on their property.

Though the reindeer rule seems pretty clear, it hasn’t stopped towns from testing the boundaries of the court’s ruling over the decades since it was established.

In 2014, Cherokee County, Texas, for instance, got into a spat with the American Humanist Association over the constitutionality of a nativity scene in front of the county courthouse. The state attorney general publicly supported the county, and there was no forced removal of the display. That same year, similar controversies took place in towns in Virginia and Arkansas. Some cities have groups like the Thomas More Society and the American Nativity Scene Committee, which work to get Christian displays erected in public places across the country, to thank for their nativity scenes. The former calls nativity scenes “classic free speech.”

But some towns have proven to be a little more inclusive of other holiday decor—or at least wary of litigation. The Florida Capitol building in Tallahassee, for instance, has approved holiday displays that include not just nativity scenes, but privately funded decorative contributions from the Satanic Temple, Seinfeld fans (a Festivus pole), and Pastafarian followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

But the U.S. remains a very Christian country, despite its longstanding religious freedom laws, and according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 44 percent of American adults think Christian symbols are OK to display on government property, even in the absence of symbols from other faiths. It should be noted that a Pew survey that year on religion found that 71 percent of Americans identified as Christians, though the percentages of residents practicing other faiths or identifying as atheists has been rising. Still, that doesn’t mean that nativity scenes get total respect in America. Plenty of baby Jesuses get swiped out of their mangers every year.

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11 Cozy Mugs for Everyone on Your Holiday Gift List
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A mug is the perfect all-purpose gift. It’s just as appropriate for your office Secret Santa as it is for your best friend. But in a world stacked to the brim with cool drinking vessels for warm beverages, which to choose? Take a look at these 11 whimsical, wonderful mugs that will please just about everyone on your holiday shopping list.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. GAME BOY HEAT CHANGE MUG; $13

A mug decorated to look like a Game Boy
Firebox

Need a gift for a video game master, or just someone who’s nostalgic for the ‘90s? Try a drinkable Game Boy. The two consoles on either side of this mug "turn on" in response to heat, revealing a start screen and a classic shot from a game of Mario. This way, your caffeine-swilling friend will get to watch their Game Boy power on at the same time they do.

Find it: Firebox

2. PERSONALIZED MAP CITY MUG; $10

Three mint-green and white mugs stacked on top of each other
Etsy

Let someone on your list show off their hometown pride with a map mug customized to showcase their favorite place. Geek Group’s personalized mugs can be tailor-made to map out the boundaries of a certain city or even a single neighborhood, down to specific coordinates. The 11-ounce, fade-resistant mugs come in a variety of different color schemes, including black and white, pink, mint (above), and multi-colored. Even better, the shop helps fund programming at the Geek Group National Science Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a nonprofit dedicated to science and technology education.

Find it: Etsy

3. HEAT CHANGING CONSTELLATION MUG; $16

Amateur star-gazers will be wowed by this star-chart morph mug from the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild. Featuring a dark image of the night sky, as it warms up, it reveals the 11 major constellations within. It's a perfect companion for someone who likes sitting out on the porch with some hot chocolate and finding the real constellations.

Find it: Amazon

4. EMBER CERAMIC MUG; $80

There’s nothing worse than going to take a sip of coffee and realizing it’s gone ice-cold. With Ember, your giftee will never have to worry about their coffee or tea cooling down, because the mug is designed to keep their drink at the exact temperature they specify. It links up with a smartphone app so that the user can remotely adjust the ideal temperature, and get a notification once their beverage has hit that temperature.

Find it: Ember

5. ANATOMY OF … MUGS; $11

Two images of a mug that reads 'Anatomy of a Maine Coon' with a drawing of a cat on it
Etsy

Your favorite animal lover will go gaga over these cutesy mugs by UK-based illustrator Sophie Corrigan. Her "Anatomy Of" mug series covers cats, dogs, birds, betta fish, cows, giraffes, hedgehogs, and basically any other animal that could be construed as adorable. No matter what kind of animal—pet or otherwise—tickles your friend’s fancy, Corrigan has a whimsical illustration to go with it.

Find it: Society 6

6. CLIMATE CHANGE MORPH MUG; $16

Two mugs depict a world map and rising sea levels.
Amazon

Perfect for the environmental activist in your life, this mug is a daily reminder of the effect humankind has on the planet. The heat-activated mug reflects what’s happening as the Earth warms, slowly causing continents to disappear as the polar ice caps melt and sea levels rise. Goodbye, Florida. Not all of your friends will be delighted to deal with the grim realities of climate change over breakfast, but for particularly ardent environmentalists, it will make a great conversation piece when their science-denying relatives come to visit.

Find it: Amazon

7. ANIMAL SNOUT CUPS; $13

A woman raises a white cup to her mouth that is shaped like a dog’s snout.
Firebox

These 6-ounce cups are sure to make any breakfast companion laugh, and they make a great novelty gift for an animal lover in your life. When they tip the cup up to their lips, they will suddenly have a new snout. The mugs come in either the shape of a dog’s nose or a pig’s, but there’s nothing stopping you from gifting both.

Find it: Firebox

8. BANNED BOOKS MORPH MUG; $12

Two mugs feature the titles of books that have been banned, one with the titles blacked out.
Uncommon Goods

Your literary friends and family will fight over this morphing mug decorated with the titles of classic books that have been banned at some point. As the mug warms up, the black lines censoring the titles—from To Kill a Mockingbird to Naked Lunch—reveal themselves.

Find it: Uncommon Goods

9. DONUT WARMING MUG; $16

A coffee mug lies on its side to reveal a platform to hold a donut, while another sits with a donut on top nearby.
Amazon

Give your favorite donut lover the perfect breakfast with this donut-warming mug, which will keep their breakfast pastry warm from the heat of their coffee. The top of the mug features a built-in lid that serves as a resting place for a small pastry (or cookie), warmed by the steam of a good cup of joe.

Find It: Amazon

10. MONDRIAN COLOR-CHANGING MUG; $24

A mug features a Mondrian-inspired design.
Amazon

Your beloved art connoisseur can take inspiration from this morphing mug from the Museum of Modern Art’s design store. Before you pour in hot liquid, it looks like it just features a black and white grid. Once it heats up, its color-changing surface reveals a design inspired by the artist Piet Mondrian.

Find it: Amazon

11. OPTICAL ILLUSION MUG SET; $20 FOR FOUR

Four black-and-white mugs feature optical illusions.
SFMOMA Museum Store

Help make someone’s coffee or tea time more fun (and mind boggling) with these optical illusion mugs from the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art Museum store. Each one of the four mugs features a different illusion to test the eyes. And at $20 for the whole set, they won’t test your wallet.

Find it: SFMOMA Museum Store

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