This Sunday, as Christian across the nation celebrate Christmas, over 97,000 Jewish Australians will be busy celebrating the ‘festival of lights’.
That’s because 25 December this year marks day one of long-running Hanukkah or Chanukah festival. The Jewish calendar also recognises 25 December 2016 as '25th of Kislev, 5777’, recognising that it's almost been 6000 years since the time the world was created, according to Jewish beliefs.
So while you’re looking through shop windows and wondering at the beauty of festive street scenes filled with Christmas trees, lights and tinsel, you could also be delighted by the sight of a few extra menorahs (candelabras) placed on windowsills throughout shopping centres, friend’s homes, or on the hood of a car (yes, there’s a market for that).
What's Hanukkah mean?
Hanukkah (which translates to ‘dedication’) reminds people of the Jewish faith of the story of the Maccabees. In 164 BCE, the Maccabees fought against the Seleucid Greeks who attempted to force the Jews to assimilate into their culture and reject the Jewish belief in God. The Maccabees were able to force the army from the land and reclaim the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
We shouldn’t make Hanukkah into a Jewish equivalent of Christmas, but I hope both Jews and Christians can enjoy the fact that we are all celebrating our own traditions and reconnecting with our family and friends on a festive occasion.
Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton, Chief Minister of the Great Synagogue in Sydney, retells a story behind one of Hanukkah’s unique customs.
“When the Maccabees recaptured the Temple, they found only one day’s worth of oil to light the Menorah,” Rabbi Elton tells SBS.
“It would take a further seven days to make new oil. The Priests lit the Menorah, but instead of lasting for just one day, the oil lasted eight days.”
“We eat oily foods on Chanukah to commemorate the miracle of the oil,” the Rabbi explains.
There are different types of food according to where you originate from. For example, a typical Ashkenazi (Eastern European) background may eat foods such as Sufganiyot (doughnuts) and Latkes (potato pancakes) whereas someone from a Sephardi (Mediterranean and Iberian Peninsula) or Mizrachi background may eat dishes such as Bimuelos and spanj.
Hanukkah is celebrated by Jews of all ages, but is particularly enjoyed by families with children ,who take part in large community events organised by synagogues, or fairs.
How do Jewish Australians celebrate?
Dean Sherr, 24, who identifies as traditionally Jewish and currently lives in Caulfield, Melbourne (one of the largest Jewish populations in Australia), will be having a very relaxed Hanukkah in his neighbourhood.
“On the first day of Hanukkah, we’ll light the menorah, say the prayers and all be together,” Sherr says. “We’ll go out for brunch during the day, because most cafes in Caulfield are open, given the Jewish patronage being so strong.”
Fellow Caulfield resident, Josh Meltzen, 24 - who identifies as Jewish Orthodox - has a very full agenda on hand.
“On the first day of Hanukkah, I’ll have some friends over for a BBQ and then go to a friend’s place for a Hanukkah party,” Meltzen says.
"At the party, Meltzen will play “mystery Maccabee” and take part in “Jewish Kris Kringle” where presents will be swapped friends and family.
Like others who hold different traditions and customs, the holiday period is also about giving. During both Hanukkah and Christmas, Jews often use the holidays to do Tikkun Olam (to “repair the World”) and give their time to help at aged care homes, homeless shelters and give Tzedakah, or charity.
The dates of Hanukkah do not change every year. The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar calendar in comparison to the Gregorian calendar (which we all follow), which is why the general public may find it confusing.
Rabbi Elton explains to SBS that because of the nature of the Hebrew calendar, “sometimes Chanukah and Christmas fall on the same days, and sometimes they are a week or more apart”.
“We shouldn’t make Hanukkah into a Jewish equivalent of Christmas, but I hope both Jews and Christians can enjoy the fact that we are all celebrating our own traditions and reconnecting with our family and friends on a festive occasion,” he says.
Hanukkah is a joyous occasion carrying varying meanings for many. For some, it is a reminder to perform good deeds and to be passionate about life; to be a light within the world like the light that comes from the candles of the menorah; to recognise how fortunate we are, as Australians, to be able to freely practice religion without fear of persecution or alienation.
For others, Hanukkah is for celebrating the end of another year; it doesn’t matter what you celebrate, but rather, how you celebrate – which is surrounded by family, friends and hopefully food.