Even though the majority of people’s attention between Thanksgiving and early December is on the upcoming Christmas season, Hanukkah is rapidly approaching. Adam Sandler’s catchy “Saturday Night Live” song may refer to the holiday as “eight crazy nights,” but it’s more than that.
Hanukkah, often written as “Chanukah,” is the Jewish festival known as the Festival of Lights, and it is observed for a full eight days. The holiday’s name comes from its original meaning—the rededication of the Holy Temple—in Hebrew and is pronounced kha-nu-kah.
When is Hanukkah this year?
On this date in 2022, Jews around the world will celebrate the first night of Hanukkah. As of the 26th of December, that is it. This year it falls on the same day as Christmas, making it a double celebration for families who observe both holidays. Score!
Rabbis from Cincinnati explain how the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah began as an act of defiance.
The genesis of the Festival of Lights can be understood from two different perspectives. Around 200 BCE, Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees rose up against the oppressive rule of the Greeks and reclaimed religious freedom for their people, marking the beginning of what is now known as Hanukkah. The city of Cincinnati is also often cited as the origin of Hanukkah.
Perhaps Hanukkah was celebrated before the last couple hundred years, but no one thought it was worth recording. That started to change in the middle to late 1800s, when two rabbis from Cincinnati, Isaac M. Wise and Max Lilienthal, popularised the celebration of Hanukkah. They did a lot to spread the word about Hanukkah and get people excited about celebrating it by introducing it to their local congregations and writing articles about it for Jewish newspapers across the country.
The modern, less orthodox ideas of Reform Judaism, of which Wise and Lilienthal were prominent figures, can be seen in the celebration they helped promote. The goal was to teach American Jewish children about their origins via the lens of a compelling and approachable historical event starring Jewish heroes. It was also supposed to feel like Christmas, a joyous time spent with loved ones.
In the 1800s, Lilienthal saw that Christmas celebrations were becoming increasingly common in the United States. He was impressed by how Christian churches used the secular aspects of Christmas to teach their faith, so he appropriated the gift-giving and lighthearted nature of these celebrations and gave them a Jewish twist. And so the festival of Hanukkah was established.
Why does Hanukkah fall on different dates each year?
Although the start of Hanukkah varies from year to year on the Gregorian calendar, it always begins on the 25th of Kislev, the Hebrew calendar. Since the new moon at the start of the Hebrew month of Kislev is the starting point for counting days, Hanukkah occurs on the 25th day of that month.
Because the Jewish calendar is lunar, it requires some tweaks to ensure that the months fall within the same seasonal range. A lunar calendar would be around eleven days short given that a solar calendar year contains nearly thirteen lunar months (a thirteen-month calendar would be nineteen days too long).
The Jewish calendar includes a leap month to make up for this.
Because it is a celebration of lights that lasts for eight days and nights, Hanukkah looks to be celebrated on a different day of the calendar each year.
The Jews only had enough oil to keep the everlasting flame burning for a day when they retook the Temple in Jerusalem, therefore the tradition of keeping the flame burning for eight days began. During the Maccabean insurrection in the second century BCE, the Jewish people retook the temple.
The fire burned for eight days as more oil was gathered. Jews traditionally use a candelabra called a menorah to light candles during holiday celebrations. The Shamas, the master candle, is used to light a single candle on the first night. Two candles are lit on the second night.
They begin with two candles on the third night, then three on the fourth, and so on and so forth until the eighth night. All eight candles are lit by the Shamas on the eighth night.
The Jewish calendar is based on the moon’s orbit around the earth, making it a lunar calendar. The Gregorian calendar, like all solar calendars, is determined by the movement of Earth relative to the sun. As a result of the difference between the lunar and solar calendars, two separate time periods are being observed. As a result, the first day of Hanukkah does not always fall on the same day in the Gregorian calendar.
Nonetheless, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah always begins on the same day each year. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. The 25th of Kislev can occur on the Gregorian calendar anytime between late November and late December. In 2010, Hanukkah began on December 2. It started on December 21st, 2011 and December 9th, 2012 respectively.
The start of Hanukkah may appear to move around from year to year, yet it always falls on the same day. The problem is simply that this date does not appear on the Gregorian calendar, the modern secular calendar used worldwide. This is a date according to the Jewish calendar.
The Gregorian calendar and the Jewish calendar aren’t exactly the same. The fact that Hanukkah is celebrated throughout the course of eight days rather than just one also explains why the festival is celebrated on different days each year. It lasts a little longer than a week.