President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump wished Jews a “Happy Hanukkah” on Sunday, just before families and communities gathered to light the first candle of the eight-night holiday.
Hannukah (alternatively spelled “Chanukah,” a transliteration of the Hebrew “חָנֻכָּה”) celebrates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century B.C., after the Jews, led by the Maccabees, defeated the occupying army of the Seleucid Greeks and cleansed the sanctuary of pagan worship. Jewish tradition holds that when the Jews searched the Temple for oil to light the menorah, a sacred candelabra, they only found enough to last one day, but it lasted for eight.
Jews observe the holiday by lighting candles (or oil lamps) on a special menorah — also called a “Chanukiah” — each night, adding a new light in ascending in order each night until the eighth night, when every light is ablaze.
The holiday is associated with various other traditions as well. Many Jews eat delicacies fried in olive oil, including potato pancakes (“latkes”) or special jelly doughnuts (“sufganiot”). Children gamble for low stakes with special four-sided tops called “dreidels,” with each side marked with a Hebrew letter standing for the words in the phrase, “A great miracle happened there.” (In Israel, the phrase reads slightly differently: “A great miracle happened here.”)
Friends and relatives often exchange gifts — typically “gelt,” small amounts of money or chocolate coins. (In the U.S., people tend to give larger gifts for Hanukkah, owing largely to the influence of the Christmas holiday.)
Many Jews believe that it is essential to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah, and so many communities hold public menorah lightings. Doing so is seen partly as a symbol of communal survival in the face of centuries of persecution.