Perhaps the biggest problem most non-Jews have with Hanukkah – and I suspect some Jews have this issue as well – is the question of how to spell the holiday’s name. Which is correct? According to holidays.net, there are at least 13 different spellings, although the site (debatably) says that Chanukah is the most common used in the United States.
The issue arises as a result of the letters used in the Hebrew spelling of the name; they don’t have exact equivalents in English, and are therefore transliterated with varying degrees of accuracy. The holiday itself, however, which begins at sundown on Sunday, December 21 this year, is the same no matter how it’s spelled – and it’s one of the most important on the Jewish religious calendar.
Despite a certain automatic association of miracles with the Catholic Church, given its tendency to celebrate them frequently, one of the earliest recorded miracles is that which is now remembered in Hanukkah celebrations.
In 164 B.C., the Maccabees (a subgroup of the scattered Jewish people) had just ended a destructive conflict with a group of Syrians of Greek origin, whom the Maccabees had driven out of Jerusalem. The Jewish Temple, which had been defiled by the occupation, had to be rededicated; as a celebration of the freeing of the Temple, the Maccabees planned to celebrate Sukkot, an autumn festival which it had not been possible to celebrate at the proper time, as soon as the Temple could be used for ceremony once more. Unfortunately, there was only enough consecrated oil to be burned on the altar for one day, rather than the required seven.
To the delight of the astonished Maccabees, the oil that should have lasted only one day lasted eight – not coincidentally, the precise amount of time required to prepare a new batch of consecrated olive oil. In practical terms, seven extra days’ worth of olive oil is perhaps a small miracle; in terms of its emotional and spiritual significance, it’s a large miracle indeed.
Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” approximately, in Hebrew, began as a misplaced and somewhat hurried celebration of Sukkot, an entirely different holiday. For the eight days of Hanukkah this year and every year for the last two millennia and more, the holiday has been celebrated in its own right with the lighting of eight candles (one for each day) in a Menorah, with gifts, and with prayer. Whether it’s called Hanukkah or Chanukah, it’s the best kind of celebration, incorporating family, religion, and a continuing tradition of ancient origin and modern beauty.