The `Splainer: Hanukkah, the minor Jewish holiday that's a major deal

Eds: The 'Splainer (as in ``You've got some 'splaining to do'') is an occasional online feature in which RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at a cocktail party.
    (RNS) You may know the basic props of Hanukkah: a menorah, a dreidel and chocolate coins. But here's the inside story on Hanukkah, which begins Tuesday at sundown (Dec. 16).
    Q: Isn't this a no-big-deal Jewish holiday that's pumped up just because it falls so close to Christmas?
    Hanukkah is considered a minor Jewish holiday, and the story it commemorates _ the ancient and outnumbered Maccabees who triumphed over their Hellenistic oppressors to preserve their faith _ is not based in the Torah, the Hebrew Bible.
    And there's no denying that Hanukkah is a bigger deal in majority Christian nations because it's celebrated near _ and sometimes on _ Christmas. With all the Christmas hoopla, it's not surprising that Jews have turned Hanukkah into a grander celebration than it might have been otherwise.
    But Hanukkah is still important, and underscores one of the most significant themes in Jewish history: the struggle to practice Judaism when powerful forces seek to extinguish it.
    Q: Why does the miracle of Hanukkah lead Jews to eat jelly donuts?
    It's all about the oil. When the pious Maccabees reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem, around 165 B.C. , they found only enough unadulterated oil to light the temple's candelabra, or menorah, for one day. But miraculously, according to the Talmud, a body of rabbinic teaching, the oil lasted for eight days.
    To celebrate Hanukkah, aka the Festival of Lights, Jews light a candle on the first night of Hanukkah, two on the second, and one more on each successive night of the eight-night holiday.  Gastronomically, Hanukkah focuses on foods cooked in oil, most typically latkes (potato pancakes fried in oil) and jelly donuts.
    Q: Hanukkah? Chanukkah, Hanukka. How come there are a million different ways to spell Hanukkah?
    Variations abound mostly because of the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the ``chet,'' with which the word ``Hanukkah'' begins in Hebrew. ``Chet'' doesn't have an equivalent in English. And the double K's? In classical Hebrew, there's a dot in the middle of the Hebrew letter ``kaf,'' which indicates an especially robust ``k'' sound.
    Q: OK, now that I know how to spell it, what does it mean?
    Hanukkah means ``dedication'' in Hebrew, in that the Temple, which had been turned into a pagan shrine, was rededicated to God.
    Q: Do Jewish children get presents on all eight nights of Hanukkah?
    Ah, the Jewish parents' dilemma: They want their kids to appreciate Hanukkah, and not be jealous of friends who will be visited by Santa; but they don't want children to equate Hanukkah only with presents. A common practice is to give a biggish present on the last night, and small to medium presents on other nights, taking breaks with no-present nights.
    Q: What's with the spinning top?
    It's called a dreidel (from the Yiddish, the language of many European Jews) and it's practically the official game of Hanukkah. The dreidel (pronounced ``DRAY-del'') has four sides, each with a Hebrew letter that stands for the saying ``a great miracle happened there'' _ ``there'' being Jerusalem. If you're in Israel, the letters stand for ``a great miracle happened here.'' Depending on which letter the dreidel lands on, you get a certain amount of chocolate coins, paper clips, raisins . whatever you are playing for.
    Q: How come there are no good Hanukkah songs?
    There are. You're just not going to hear them on the radio in the U.S. because Jews are less than 2 percent of the U.S. population and there isn't a big market for these tunes. Plus, some of the best Hanukkah songs are in other languages spoken by Jews. But if you're looking for a catchy Hanukkah song in English, try the Maccabeats' ``Miracle'' or Peter, Paul and Mary's ``Light One Candle,'' which is a famous folk song that many people don't know is actually about Hanukkah.