When Does Hanukkah 2017 Start and End? Dates and Facts About the Jewish Holiday

The National Menorah, part of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, is seen near the Washington Monument in Washington, DC on December 10, 2015. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Yes, yes, it's December and "Christmas Is All Around," as Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) sang oh so so sleazily in the 2003 holiday film staple Love, Actually. But as I always insisted as a child, there's another holiday in December! Well, sometimes Hanukkah is in December. Sometimes it comes earlier. Here are this year's dates and some basic facts about the Jewish holiday.

When does it start and end?
In 2017, Hanukkah begins at sundown on Tuesday, December 12, and ends with nightfall on Wednesday, December 20. The candles are lit for eight consecutive nights starting on December 12 and continuing through December 19. In Judaism, each day begins at sundown the evening prior, which is why the first candle lighting takes place on the 12th and none takes place on the 20th.

Why is the exact date of Hanukkah different each year?
Technically, it's not. Well, not according to the Jewish calendar. Hanukkah takes place every single year starting at sundown on the 24th day of the month Kislev and ending on the second day of the month Tivet (with the last candle lit on the evening of the first of Tivet). It's just that the Jewish calendar and the Gregorian calendar, the one that's used in the United States and in most of the world (including for most purposes in Israel) don't match up. That means Jewish holidays fall on different dates on the Gregorian calendar every year.

What does the holiday mark or celebrate?
Hanukkah, which means "dedication" or "inauguration," celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Hasmoneans, or Maccabees, mounted a successful resistance against the Seleucid king of the Hellenistic Syrian kingdom, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, more than 2,000 years ago. Antiochus abolished Judaism—the penalty for refusing to convert was death—and the Syrians desecrated the Temple, putting up an altar to the Greek god Zeus in the Jews' holiest place.

Hanukkah is a joyous festival marking the defeat of Antiochus's armies at the hands of the Maccabees, led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his son Judah Maccabee, and the restoration and rededication of the Temple. Many years later the Talmud, a rabbinic text, told a story about the Maccabees finding a small jar of pure oil they wanted to use to light a menorah. It was only enough for one day but lasted eight.

PS 1 second grade students play with dreidels and chocolate gold coins after lighting the menorah December 4, 2007 at the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York City. Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

What are some of the traditions?

Candles: In memory of the miracle that allowed the oil to last for eight days, Jews light candles every night for eight nights. The Hanukkah menorah—Hebrew for lamp, candelabrum, light or chandelier—has nine branches, one taller than all the rest to hold the shamash, or helper, the candle that's used to light all the others. One candle is lit with the help of the shamash on the first night of the holiday, two on the second, three on the third and so forth. There are three blessings recited on the first night, and two of those are repeated on the subsequent nights.

Gelt: Children are usually given Hanukkah gelt, or money. Sometimes that's real money, and sometimes it's chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil to look like money. According to Chabad, children should be encouraged to donate some of their gelt to charity. The holiday in general is one where Jews are meant to give extra to charity. That eight presents thing, by the way? It's a recent American invention.

Worship: At synagogue, for those who go, passages from the Book of Numbers in the Torah are read during Hanukkah. In addition, a passage called al hanissim ("for the miracles") is included in the daily standing prayer and to the post-meal blessing.

Dreidel: The dreidel is a fixture for the kids during Hanukkah. It's a spinning top labeled with Hebrew letters on each of four sides. One letter differs depending on whether the dreidel is being used in Israel or outside. Together, they represent the statement "a great miracle happened there" or "a great miracle happened here." The top is used in a game of luck—basically gambling—played with real money, gelt or some other item.

A serving of fresh oil-fried and jam-filled doughnuts, called sufganiyot in Hebrew, is displayed at the Roladin bakery December 6, 2006 in Kadima in central Israel. David Silverman/Getty Images

What Hanukkah songs are there?
Hanukkah songs run the gamut from those composed hundreds of years ago, such as "Ma'Oz Tzur," to more modern classics in English and Hebrew, including "I Have a Little Dreidel," "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah" and "Sivivon, sov, sov, sov" (a sivivon is a dreidel or top). In recent years, a new musical tradition has taken root, with Jewish a cappella groups releasing new songs for the holiday every year, often parodies of popular tracks (like Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" and Taio Cruz's "Dynamite"). And then, of course, there's Adam Sandler's "The Hanukkah Song."

What do Jews eat on Hanukkah?
The two most iconic Hanukkah foods are fried in oil, going back to the miracle. There are latkes, or potato pancakes, on the savory side, and sufganiyot, or doughnuts, for dessert. The latter are traditionally made with a jelly filling (such as strawberry or raspberry), but modern bakeries have versions with custard, Nutella, dulce de leche and other even more unorthodox flavors, like Oreo, peanut butter and jelly and apple-quince.

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