At this time of year York is so Christmas orientated with the Minster sat right bang in the middle of the city, grottos, elves and riendeer gracing show windows, and enourmous red lorries with Santa knocking back his favourite soft drink, that is easy to forgot that there are other major relegious festivals this time of year.
On 20th December at sundown, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins. Hanukkah starts on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev, which usually coincides with late November or late December. The holiday is observed for eight nights and marks the Jewish festival of light. The word Hanukkah means rededication, referring to the redirection of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE.
When the Jewish people were ordered to worship Greek gods by Antiochus, a Syrian king, they followed the laws set out in the Ten Commandments and refused to worship statues and idols. A statue of Antiochus was erected in the Holy Temple, and following a successful three year rebellion by a group of Jews called the Maccabees, the temple was returned to the Jewish people.
Once the temple has been taken back, Judah ordered that it be cleansed and a new altar built (Antiochus had ordered pigs to be sacrificed on the previous altar). According to the Talmud, the menorah (a branched lamp stand) in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night, only had enough oil for one day but due to a miracle of God the menorah continued to burn for eight days. This is the origin of the eight day festival of light that is now celebrated as Hannukkah.
There are a number of rituals that are to be performed throughout the eight days of Hanukkah, as well as additions to prayers and blessings after meals. On each night of Hanukkah a candle is lit on the menorah and blessings are made over the lights. There are also traditional games for children such as spinning the dreidel (a spinning top with the Hebrew letters forming the acronym ‘נס גדול היה שם’ Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – “a great miracle happened there”).
Rabbis have played down the significance of Hanukkah but since the creation of Israel and the advent of Zionism the festival has grown in significance. It is also widely commented that the holiday has become more important as an Jewish alternative to the Christian festival of Christmas that occurs roughly at the same time. This is pronounced in the U.S. where the commercialisation and the subsequent growth of Christmas into a festival that starts in at least from the beginning of November, began in the middle of the last century.
To mark Hanukkah there is a giant menorah lit up with candles in Trafalgar Square and from sunset tonight candles will be lit across the country as those of Jewish faith celebrate their own mid-winter festival. So look out for the menorah candle stands in windows through the city and when you see one remember that this time of year can be a celebration for many different members of our community.