Hanukkah begins at sundown on December 24th this year. Celebrated around the world by nearly 16 million people of the Jewish faith, the holiday includes the lighting of candles, the giving of gifts, and festive family gatherings.
Some of our friends and team members here at Dandelion Chandelier shared their Hanukkah traditions, and we all spent some time seeking advice from our luxury-class pals on how to celebrate it in high style.
First, a bit of background and some facts.
Hanukkah celebrates the rebellion of the Jewish people against the Syrians in the Maccabean War, 162 B.C. It also celebrates the survival of Judaism amidst the struggle for religious freedom: after winning the war, the Jewish people cleansed the Holy Temple and relit the menorah, or oil lamp. It was said that there was only enough pure olive oil – blessed by a priest – left to last for one night, but somehow it lasted for eight days (the time needed to create a new supply of kosher oil for the menorah). Thus, the holiday is celebrated over eight days.
The Hebrew word Hanukkah means “establishing” or “dedication,” and refers to this restoration of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. You may be wondering how to properly spell the name (I know I was). Because the holiday’s name is transliterated from Hebrew, it can be spelled in various ways – most often appearing as “Hanukkah,” but also frequently as “Chanukah.”
Also known as the “Festival of Lights,” the celebration may be the most familiar to people outside of the faith because it falls near Christmas each year; for the observant, it’s actually a minor holiday – not one of the High Holy Days. It has far less significance than Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) or Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year).
2016 is the first time in a long while that both the first day of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve fall on the same day. Hanukkah always begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev, which occurs between late November and late December on the Gregorian calendar. The Hebrew calendar is both solar and lunar, while the Gregorian is primarily solar, so it can appear that the holy days of Judaism randomly move about the calendar. The first day of Hanukkah fell on Christmas Day in 1959, and again in 2005. That won’t happen again until 2024.
Hanukkah has several important traditions and symbols: families gather to light a candle on a menorah on each of the eight nights, and afterward prayers are recited and a Hanukkah song may be sung. Gifts are usually exchanged, one per night, and many people go to synagogue each night to pray and worship.
The menorah is probably the best-known symbol of Hanukkah – it’s a candelabra with nine candles – one for each night, and one to light the rest (called the shamash, this ninth candle is frequently placed on a branch of the menorah either above or in some other way distinct from the rest):
–The menorah is a symbol of holy light, and it also has other symbolic meanings. Its central branch, with multiple other branches stemming from it, represent the belief that one’s behavior and demeanor stem from within, and that a person’s soul and character on the inside should project outward positively to the surrounding world.
–There are many types and styles of menorahs – backwall (an ancient version with a back attached – so that it can be affixed to a wall – with a narrow tray underneath to hold eight wicks); standard (with round branches); and rambam (with straight diagonal branches).
–While menorahs can be purchased from the gift shop at a local synagogue, our friends tell us that many Jewish children still have one of the handmade ceramic, wood or metal ones that they fashioned in their earliest years at Hebrew school, or that they purchased at their temple’s holiday bazaar. The most highly-treasured menorahs are the ones passed down from generation to generation, or those purchased in Jerusalem during a first trip to Israel.
–Our luxury-class friends tell us that the best place to purchase unique high-end menorahs is at the shop in The Jewish Museum on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Located in an imposing 110-year-old French Renaissance Fifth Avenue mansion, the museum store has menorahs made from bronze, glass, and sterling silver, designed by artists from Europe, Israel and the U.S. They can cost up to $7,000 each.
–Because the purpose of the menorah is to illuminate the outside world from within, it is traditionally placed in a window, to be seen by passersby so that they will remember the miracle of the oil. In recent years it has become common to see public menorah lightings in many major cities around the world.
Hanukkah gelt is often given to children during the holiday, usually in the form of coins. Families frequently give gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins, as well.
Dreidels are 4-sided spinning tops:
–Even though the classic children’s song suggests that they’re made of clay, today they are made of a variety of materials: plastic, wood, glass, even precious metal.
–Each side is printed with a different Hebrew letter – taken together, they represent the phrase “a great miracle happened there.”
–Our well-traveled friends have dreidels made in Israel; you can tell because the fourth letter on one of the sides is different, to represent the phrase “a great miracle happened HERE.”
–One of our neighbors showed me a lovely sterling silver dreidel that she bought as a gift for her new grandson this year for about $200 from one of her favorite websites, jewishsource.com. (Our son reports that the dreidel game is “really fun!”)
–The origin of the custom of playing with dreidels is a bit unclear, but it seems to have evolved from a time when the Jewish people were forbidden to study the Torah. They would secretly read and study, and if suspicions were raised, they would play with dreidels, so that the authorities would assume that they were just gambling.
Traditional foods for the holiday include latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts) – the oil that they are cooked in symbolizes the jar of oil that lasted for eight days. Some of our friends swear by their mother’s chopped liver as ambrosia at this time of year. Other friends mentioned family meals featuring chicken soup with matzo balls; stuffed cabbage; noodle kugel; homemade applesauce; knishes; braided challah bread; and chocolate or cinnamon babka for dessert. Dinner usually also includes a holiday roast: goose, duck, chicken or beef brisket.
Holiday songs run the gamut from the traditional “Maoz Tzur,” to “The Dreidel Song,” to Adam Sandler’s “The Hanukkah Song.” Anyone can join in: R&B artist Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings dropped a new song this year that people are calling an instant classic: “8 Days (of Hanukkah).”
It’s only in relatively recent memory that people outside of the faith fully understood what the holiday represents. The first record of the President of the US becoming involved with Hanukkah was in 1951, when President Harry Truman received the gift of a menorah from the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. The first national menorah in the US was lit when Jimmy Carter was President, in 1979.
So how should one go about making this holiday truly luxurious? Here are few ideas:
Dress Up. As with many religious holidays, people dress for temple and for family dinners in their best clothes for Hanukkah. This is an opportunity for chic and festive attire for the whole family. If you’re feeling playful, Whoopi Goldberg launched a series of whimsical “ugly” holiday sweaters last month, and one of them would be perfect for a Hanukkah dinner. Rock one with a great pair of pants, and you’ll be remembered long after dinner ends.
Decorate. The traditional Hanukkah color scheme of silver and blue lends itself perfectly to magical ways to dress your home for the holiday: think modern frosty glamour atop the table, with white marble, pearl grey, metallic silver, mercury glass, and artfully-placed mini-mirrors to reflect the candlelight. You can never go wrong with too many candles – just vary the height and size, from votives, to tapers, to pillars (I’m a believer in white or ivory candles at all times, but that’s just me). The floral choices can be stunning: white cyclamen (which is native to Jerusalem), light and dark blue delphinium, white peonies, and lilies of the valley. And yes, we think its fine to have a “Hanukkah Bush” (quite similar to a Christmas tree) – if it makes your family happy (and many families are celebrating both holidays, anyway), why not? If you go with a theme of silvery ice and snow, you can leave almost everything in place until late February – why un-decorate when your lovely objects can cheer you all the way through the winter?
Eat Out. Gourmet restaurants all over the world are serving special meals for the holiday. For example, in the Bay Area, San Francisco’s Fiorella on Clement Street will delve into Jewish-Italian traditions; Comal in Berkeley is hosting “Oaxanukah Dinners” featuring traditional Mexican and Jewish flavors for $75/person; and Nightbird on Gough Street will feature a Hanukkah tasting menu for $125/person. In New York, Prime Grill and Reserve Cut (both kosher steakhouses); Le Marais; Telepan; and Mexican restaurant Toloache are all great options.
Give Great Gifts. Check out our patented 5-step guide to luxury holiday gift-giving for our suggestions on memorable presents for all.
Escape. If wanderlust hits, our friends recommend:
–South Florida. Greater Miami is the perfect place to spend the holiday. Great weather, lively crowds, lots of people in town and lots of options for dining out.
–The Caribbean. Antigua, the Virgin Islands, and St. Barth’s are also excellent options. Have fun experiencing local rituals such as bamboo menorahs, special kosher sweets, and parties under the stars.
–Mexico. Several of our friends rave about The One & Only Pamilla in Los Cabos; the 5-Diamond Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit in Nuevo Vallarta on Mexico’s Pacific Coast is celebrating with a cocktail specially made for the holiday: the Blue Dreidel contains Bombay Sapphire Gin, macerated grapes, rosemary and lemon.
–New York. Whether you’re a native or a visitor, join one of the many Hanukkah celebrations around town, visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage, see the world’s largest menorah on the southeast corner of Central Park, visit a few legendary kosher restaurants and delis, and make a pilgrimage to the Doughnut Plant, one of the best purveyors of jelly doughnuts we’ve ever found.
Like several other religious and cultural holidays toward year-end, including Diwali, Christmas, and Kwanzaa, Hanukkah is an opportunity for sharing hope, warmth and light in a season that can be cold and dark. It reminds us to remember and honor a glorious past; to celebrate the cherished relationships that we have with others; and to forge a path forward that is authentic and purposeful.
I think that President Obama best expressed the spirit of the holiday and its relevance for all at a gathering for 500 guests at the White House in 2014. The ceremony was attended by two Israeli students whose school had been destroyed by an arsonist opposed to their faith. The President said “the light of hope must outlast the fires of hate.” What a luxury it would be to make that so.