The first night of Hanukkah this year is Tuesday, December 12, and millions of Jewish families will be lighting candles each night for eight days until the evening of Wednesday, December 20. Celebrated on 25 Kislev in the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah moves around each year in relation to the modern Gregorian calendar. Hanukkah is an important tradition for Jewish-American families, but it is less than central to the Jewish religious tradition. If you are curious about Hanukkah basics, here a 8 things to start with.

Myth

The traditional story of Hanukkah goes like this; Syrian king Antiochus invaded Jerusalem, and sacked the Jewish Temple there. Local Jewish militias repelled the attack, and reinstalled the teir temple. The word Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew word for “dedication,” as in rededicating that temple.

But, the story goes, there was only enough olive oil in the war-torn town to fuel a lamp for one day. Congregants prayed, and bingo, the lamp lasted a whole eight days, just enough time for local olive oil pressers to squeeze out process fuel for the eternal fram.

Rituals

Alongside Christmas, Hanukkah adapted European religious traditions to American life, and developed dramatically in the 19th and 20 centuries. Of the many holidays pepper the Jewish calendar, and Hanukkah is low on the priority list, way below Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Hanukkah is also more fun and less serious. Instead of bitter foods to remind Jews of their ancestors’ sufferings, it’s filled with sweets. Instead of highly regimented prayers, families enjoy a more free-form structure, including songs and games.

Candle Lighting & The Menorah

The most important ritual is lighting the menorah. To commemorate the eight days that the oil miraculously kept lit, people celebrate Hanukkah by lighting candles each night. On the first night, light two candles (one of them is the candle-lighting candle, usually kept in the middle of the menorah).

The candles are usually really small, so they burn down quickly. Each evening, add another candle, using the center candle to light two the second night, three the third night, and so on.

Dreidel: A Game Of Chance For Kids

Hanukkah revelers often play with the dreidel, the four-sided spinning top marked with Hebrew letters. While players spin to win sweets, it’s not exactly gambling. They don’t wager their candies. Are a few variations of the game, but they all rely on the same markings to signify action words.

נ (Nun)

ג (Gimel)

ה (Hey)

ש (Shin)

In one variation of dreidel, players start with 15 chocolate coins or other sweets. Players spin the dreidel, and win, lose, or draw the spin based in which side lands up. For example in one Yiddish version of the game,  נ (Nun) stands for nisht “nothing” and is the draw role; nothing happens. ג (Gimel) stands for gnats, “all,” and whoever rolls it gets the pot. ה (Hey) = half, and ש (Shin) requires the roller to put one coin in the pot.

Food

Jewish families often eat latkes (potato fritters) , pontshkes (jelly-filled doughnuts) and other olive-oil-laden foods. Modern foodies are taking Hanukkah sweets to the next level, with thinks like cake-pop dradei, home-made gelt (the chocolate coins) and other snacks .

Activities For Kids -- And Entertainment For Adolescents At Heart

In addition to Dreidel, Hanukkah is a time for kid-friendly activities. Popular online searches this time of year include queries for Hanukkah coloring books and printable coloring pages . There’s also a high demand for kid friendly songs .

For the immature at heart, but not for kids, there’s always someone looking for the silly Adam Sandler Hanukkah song of fellow Jewish comedian’s satirical sketch “ Give The Jew Girl Toys.”

Gifts

In North America and Israel, it’s common to give gifts during Hanukkah. This tradition co-evolved with changes in Christian Christmas traditions, and sort of spreads out the mainstream American gift-giving over a week instead of on Christmas morning.

Gifts range from major purchases to minor ones, the Jewish equivalent of stocking-stuffers. Many parents also encourage their children to give to charity during this time.

The Real Story Of Hanukkah?

Historical accounts indicate that the “war” against a Syrian king was actually internal conflict between culturally diverse Jewish groups.

And the eight days of lamp burning? It’s barely mentioned in the oldest, most important Jewish texts. Instead, some say that the festival of lights may be a second Sukkot, a harvest festival that lasts eight days, but geared toward olive growers.

That doesn’t diminish the modern history of Hanukkah, which is a home-grown American Jewish tradition that helped define the minority group’s place in mainstream society. Hanukkah co-evolved with Christmas, and it’s worth mentioning that it isn’t based on that Christian tradition.

As Dianne Ashton writes in her 2013 book about Hanukkah, the holiday “enabled [American Jews] to vivify their familial bonds, and its joyousness helped them to be happy to be Jews at a time when, in the American cultural calendar, they are most conscious of their minority status.”