Menorah with chocolate coins and doughnut

What is Hanukkah and how is it celebrated?

Victoria Prever outlines how the Jewish festival of Hanukkah is celebrated, the traditions behind it and what delicious sharing dishes to expect. 

Hanukkah is possibly the most indulgent of all Jewish festivals — and that’s saying something, as most Jewish celebrations involve a mountain of food.

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From sugary doughnuts and crunchy latkes, to dreidl games and candle lights. Victoria Prever, gives the lowdown.

1. It’s a miracle

Hanukkah (also spelt Chanukah and Chanucah) means rededication. The holiday celebrates a series of miracles. The first, according to legend, was the victory over 2,000 years ago of a tiny army of Jews (the Maccabees) over their Syrian oppressors. The first thing they did after that was to rebuild their Temple. However, when they went to relight the holy light — which was meant to burn constantly — they found they had only enough oil for one day.

Worse, it was going to take eight days to source more oil. So the story goes that the second miracle was that the tiny vial of sanctified oil burned for eight days — until more arrived.

So, to celebrate both miracles, candles are lit in a special candlestick called a menorah or chanukiah. An extra candle is added for each night until the last night of the festival, when the candlestick is full and all eight candles burn together.

2. A moveable feast

The festival occurs in the ninth month of the Jewish calendar, Kislev, which generally falls in late November or December.  The date of the festival moves around in the modern calendar from year to year, because Jewish months are based on the lunar year.

3. All about the oil


Not surprisingly, foods cooked in oil are key. Doughnuts and deep-fried potato latkes are the favourites. Every Jewish bakery fills their shelves with ring doughnuts as well as filled versions, stuffed with all sorts of tasty treats. Jam and custard remain the most popular.

4. International flavour

Around the world, different Jewish communities have various fried favourites they make for the festival. In Israel, doughnuts are called sufganiyot and are stuffed with all sorts of unusual fillings like halva; tahini and honey; sticky melting marshmallows and gooey chocolate.

In Spain and Portugal, they eat Buñuelos which are yeasted fritters flavoured with spices like cardamom and cinnamon and drizzled with orange flower honey. Italian Jews celebrate with fried chicken but also prepare precipizi – tiny fried balls of dough which they coat in warm honey.

5. Whole latkes love


These are delicious, deep-fried patties of grated potato and onion which need to be crisp on the outside but meltingly tender inside. The key to the crunch is to squeeze as much water out of the grated potato as you can. Serve them topped with whatever you fancy — soured cream and apple sauce are traditional but anything goes: flavour them with horseradish and top with guacamole, gravadlax and a poached egg; or try goat’s cheese and chutney; smoked fish or even make them from other root veg like beetroot, or top parsnip latkes with smoked mackerel and a poached egg.

6. Coin in

Chocolate coins on tray

Present-giving is another tradition, making it a favourite with children, who often receive a small gift for each of the eight days. Chocolate coins are popular, so they can be used to play the dreidel game. A dreidel is a spinning top with four letters on. The letter you land on dictates whether you put a coin in, take half the pile of coins, take all the coins or just do nothing.

7. Doing it dairy

Some families also serve dairy foods because of the legend of Judith, a beautiful Jewish woman who fed salty cheese to an Assyrian general Holofernes. The grim story goes that the cheese made him thirsty, he drank too much wine and fell into a drunken sleep. Judith cut off his head and the Israelis rallied and attacked the Assyrian armies who then fled. The dairy foods include rugelach (pronounced rog-el-ach) tasty little croissant-shaped biscuits made from a cream cheese-based dough and stuffed with various fillings like cinnamon and raisin or chocolate and tahini.

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What’s your favourite Hanukkah treat? Leave a comment below…