What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukah, is an eight-day Jewish holiday that usually falls in late November to late December, depending on the Hebrew calendar. It is also known as the Festival of Lights.
The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C., following the Maccabean revolt against oppressive Greek rulers. The story of Hanukkah is one of a miracle that occurred during this time, when a one-day supply of consecrated oil miraculously burned in the temple's menorah (a seven-branched candelabrum) for eight days, until new oil could be prepared.
To celebrate Hanukkah, it is a custom to light a special menorah, known as a hanukkiah, each night. The hanukkiah has nine candle holders - one for each night of the festival and an additional one for the 'shamash' (helper) candle which is used to light the others. One candle is lit on the first night, two on the second, and so on, until all eight are lit on the final night.
Other Hanukkah traditions include playing a game with a spinning top called a dreidel, eating foods fried in oil like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts), and giving and receiving gifts. The holiday is a joyous time and is often celebrated with family gatherings, songs, and festivities.
When is Hanukkah celebrated?
Hanukkah begins at sundown on the first day of the holiday. This is in accordance with the Jewish calendar, where a day begins at sunset rather than at midnight as in the Gregorian (Western) calendar.
The Gregorian date on which Hanukkah begins changes every year, as such, here are the dates of Hanukkah for upcoming years:
- 2023: Thur, December 7 - Fri, December 15
- 2024: Wed, December 25 - Thur, January 2
- 2025: Sun, December 14 - Mon, December 22
- 2026: Fri, December 4 - Sat, December 12
- 2027: Fri, December 24 - Sat, January 1, 2027
- 2028: Tue, December 12 - Wed, December 20
Why does the date of Hanukkah move each year?
The date of Hanukkah seems to move each year because the Jewish calendar is a lunisolar calendar, meaning it's based on the cycles of both the sun and the moon. This is different from the Gregorian calendar, which is a solar calendar and is most commonly used worldwide today.
In the Jewish calendar, months begin with the new moon, and a year is usually 12 lunar months long. However, a lunar year is approximately 11 days shorter than a solar year. To keep holidays in their traditional seasons and to keep the calendar in sync with the solar year, a leap month is added in certain years. This system is similar to the leap year system in the Gregorian calendar, but instead of adding a day, a whole month is added.
Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, a month in the Jewish calendar. Because of the differences between the lunisolar Jewish calendar and the solar Gregorian calendar, Kislev can fall anywhere from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. This is why Hanukkah appears to "move" each year when viewed from the perspective of the Gregorian calendar.
Why is Hanukkah sometimes spelled Chanukah?
The different spellings of "Hanukkah" versus "Chanukah" are a result of the challenges of transliteration, which is the process of converting words from one alphabet or language script into another.
In this case, the original word for Hanukkah is from Hebrew, which uses a different alphabet than English. The first letter of the word in Hebrew, ח, is often transliterated as an 'H' or 'Ch'. This Hebrew letter, called "het", doesn't have an exact equivalent in the English language. It's a sound made in the back of the throat, and can be transliterated as an 'H' or 'Ch'.
So, both "Hanukkah" and "Chanukah" are acceptable spellings in English, and both attempt to approximate the Hebrew pronunciation. However, "Hanukkah" is the most widely used spelling and is the one recommended by the Associated Press and most English dictionaries. But you will still often see "Chanukah" used, especially in more religious or traditional contexts.