For many countries and cultures around the world Hanukkah is more than an excuse to exchange gifts. This religious holiday is a chance to gather with their Jewish family or community to celebrate Judaism and share customs, rituals and traditions from ancient times. We take a look at 21 countries around the world that celebrate Hanukkah. While some keep it very traditional, others have adopted new rituals or merged their new culture with the ancient times.
What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish celebration. Each year the dates for Hanukkah changes, but thanks to its proximity to Christmas it’s become a popular holiday. It celebrates a miracle of light and marks the anniversary of the Maccabean revolt to reclaim the temple of Jerusalem. The tales goes that the Maccabees only had enough purified oil to light the temple’s grand lanterns for one day. The oil lasted eight full days and nights — a miracle.
What are some typical Hanukkah traditions?
Many Jewish families light a menorah on Hanukkah, a candelabra with eight wax candles. One is lit each night over eight nights. Some traditions require women of the house to rest until the candles have burnt for half-an-hour or completely out. Some families avoid using technology during this time of togetherness, while others might watch Hanukkah TV specials.
Food is a big focus, as it should be! Many delicious fried treats are popular – the oily, greasy foods symbolising the oil of the temple. Traditionally families might eat fried potato latkes or sweet treats like doughnuts cooked in olive oil.
Families might play dreidel, a tiny spinning top inscribed with Hebrew letters on four sides. This is originally a German gambling game adapted by the Jewish people. Each person contributes a stash of coins, chocolate or other objects to a central pot. Who wins depends on how the dreidel falls.
Which countries celebrate Hanukkah around the world?
As you can imagine, Hanukkah in Israel is a big deal. On all eight nights, the streets of Jerusalem glow with candlelight. Each family displays the family’s menorah for the neighbourhood to see and many homes have wall cutouts for this purpose! Naturally, Israeli Jews love to eat latkes and sufganiyot (jam-filled doughnuts). The greasy, oily foods symbolise the oil used to light the ancient temple.
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Christmas in Australia is about being together, and Hanukkah is the same. Since it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere, families spend the night at home lighting candles together before enjoying a block party the next day to celebrate with the community and commemorate the “festival of lights”. It’s estimated that there are between 100,000 and 150,000 Jews of different streams and movements based in Australia.
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There are some 480,000 Jews in France who discreetly celebrate Hanukkah. If you’re in Paris, head to Le Marais where you can enjoy delicious Middle Eastern and Jewish specialities – except on Saturdays when most are closed for sabbath! In the Alsace region, Jews use a double menorah with space for 16 lights rather than the traditional eight, so a father and son can both light a candle together.
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The Jewish population started arriving in northern Colombia fleeing persecution in the Iberian peninsula during the 16th and 17th centuries. In the centuries that followed, many more joined from across the world. Now there are approximately 8,000 practicing Jews, with the majority in Bogotá. While the Hanukkah traditions are fairly typical, one community in Santa Marta eats fried plantain instead of potato latkes.
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Did you know there are 33 synagogues in India? Rather than lighting wax candles, Indian Jews dip wicks in coconut oil, and they often eat barfi, a milk-based treat with sweet fruits, instead of latkes.
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In the United States, Hanukkah is often just an excuse to exchange gifts and share a meal together. Mixed families even celebrate “Christmukkuh”, a blend of the two December holidays. More than any other country, Americans will exchange wrapped gifts and some even have a Hanukkah bush. There is a custom to give a gift each night, totaling eight gifts as the menorah is lit.
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The seventh night of Hanukkah has a different meaning in Yemen. On this day they celebrate women, inspired by the heroines of the Torah. It is said that Hannah sacrificed seven sons to protect Judaism against Greek pressure to convert.
Jews in Morocco don’t make latkes. Instead they create doughnuts called sfenj, made with orange juice and zest, which are in season at that time of year. Jews have been present in Morocco since Roman times, with an extra wave crossing the Strait of Gibraltar during the Spanish Inquisition.
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Since 160 BC Jews have lived in Rome. The capital celebrates with a 20-foot-high menorah lit at Piazza Barberini. The favourite Hanukkah treat for Italians? Precipizi. These small fried balls of dough, sweetened with warm honey, are enjoyed with wine.
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Curiously, Ethiopian Jews only recently started celebrating Hanukkah too. Over time the Jewish community has lost contact with communities and was not aware of the oral Torah. It meant they didn’t celebrate this holiday or others, but now reunited they have adopted similar traditions.
Hungary is home to the third largest Jewish community in Europe, and the capital Budapest is magical at this time of year. While celebrations have been low-key until recently, now you can expect to see streets strung with lights and huge menorahs through the historic Jewish quarters and events or special Hanukkah menus or dishes on show at local restaurants. Don’t be surprised if you see a rabbi skating on ice!
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London is the world in one city, so it’s no surprise the urban centre and capital of England is home to some 250,000 Jews. Each year Trafalgar Square lights up with a giant menorah, drawing thousands of spectators.
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During the Holocaust it’s estimated that 3 million Polish Jews were murdered. These days Hanukkah celebrations in Poland are big, with public events involving the president and government to symbolise peace with the community. Menorahs are lit across the country.
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Hanukkah traditions in Iran are more religious in nature. Here Jewish residents, who have resided in Iran for more than 3,000 years, attend synagogues and temples to attend religious services, read from prayer books, and celebrate the holiday.
The first Jews immigrated to Canada in 1760 and they’ve been celebrating Hanukkah and its traditions ever since. Jewish families in Canada tend to celebrate the holiday as a secular tradition like Christmas, exchanging gifts and eating traditional food from the family’s original country. It’s a melting pot of flavours and traditions, just like in the US.
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Germany will never be able to repair the damage done during the Holocaust, where 6 million Jews died due to ethnic cleansing by the Nazis. But each year the country lights a large menorah out the front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
In the centre of Moscow a large menorah is lit in Revolution Square. Each year thousands gather to watch the flames light and enjoy the ceremony, which includes a concert with choir singers and traditional songs.
Turkey, especially Istanbul, is home to many Sephardic Jews who fled the inquisition in Spain for safety in Turkey. A tradition is to sing a unique song in Ladino dialect called “Ocho Candelas” and eat burmelos, little fried fritters.
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So that’s how 18 countries around the world celebrate Hanukkah each year. Leave a comment if you’ll be making Jewish foods or following any Hanukkah traditions….