Geography in the News: Hanukkah, A Jewish Celebration

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

GEOGRAPHY IN THE NEWS (1118)  Neal G. Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner Appalachian State University

Christians around the world celebrate Christmas on December 25, while Jews celebrate a holiday, Hanukkah, around the same time. Hanukkah is traditionally thought of as one of the less important holidays, yet it has become more popular in the West over the years, perhaps in part because it falls near Christmas.

Hanukkah (HAH-nih-kuh), also called the Jewish Festival of Lights, is celebrated for eight days and nights beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. On the secular calendar, Hanukkah falls somewhere between late November and late December. This year, Hanukkah is occurring from sunset on December 16 to nightfall on December 24.

Geography in the News_1125_hanukkah

The word “Hanukkah” means “dedication” in Hebrew. The holiday commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews revolted against the Seleucid Empire around 165 B.C. The Seleucid Empire was a Greek (or Hellenistic) civilization that stretched from what is today Turkey to what is today Pakistan.

The Hanukkah story begins when the Seleucid army conquered the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and commanded that it be used to worship the Greek god Zeus. Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV ruled that practicing Judaism was punishable by death and that all Jews should worship Greek gods. Some Jews resisted.

One particular Jewish high priest, Mattathias, amassed many Jews into a fighting force, finally retaking the Jewish temple from the Greeks. They found that the Greeks had used the temple for sacrificing swine and the worship of foreign gods.

The Jewish soldiers resolved to re-dedicate the temple by building a new altar, making new holy vessels and constantly burning ritual oil in the menorah, a sacred candelabrum. To their disappointment, they found only enough oil for one day.

Despite having so little oil, the temple’s menorah burned for eight days, the amount of time needed to find a new reserve of olive oil for the lamp. An eight-day celebration, Hanukkah, was declared to commemorate this miracle.

Jews celebrate Hanukkah today with some special traditions. To commemorate the miracle of the ritual oil, they light one additional candle of a menorah for each of the eight successive nights of Hanukkah.

Since the latter half of the 20th century, Hanukkah has become a more popular holiday for Jewish families, especially those living in predominately Christian countries. Jews looking for an alternative to the Christmas season and all of its celebrations easily adopted Hanukkah, which often overlaps Christmas.

During Hanukkah, Jewish parents gave their children small gifts of money, called gelt. Elaborate decorations and foods have also become the norm in many Jewish households, especially in the West.

Geographically, Jews live in many countries of the world, though more than 80 percent live in the United States (6.5 million) and Israel (5.0 million) combined. Other much smaller concentrations are in France (600,000), Canada (364,000) and Russia and the United Kingdom (275,000 each).

Hanukkah has become an increasingly major holiday for some Jews. Many of the more traditionalist Jews, however, emphasize faith and religious freedom during Hanukkah to commemorate the re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem to Judaism.

December is a month filled with significance for many varied cultural and religious groups. It is important for modern educated societies to recognize and understand all of them.

And that is Geography in the News.

Possible Discussion Questions:

1. There are several “winter holidays” celebrated by different cultures and ethnic groups. Christmas and Hanukkah are two, but what are some others and with what groups are these holidays associated?

2. Why has Hanukkah become more popular in the West than elsewhere?

3. What ten countries have the largest Jewish populations? Give some reasons why Israel’s Jewish population is NOT the world’s largest.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Sources: GITN 1125 “Hanukkah: A Jewish Tradition,”, Jan. 7, 2012: ;; and

Collection: Explore National Geographic Education resources on Judaism and Jerusalem at

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