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The Holiday Party Scene: How to Dazzle Your Friends With 8 Lesser-Known Hanukkah Facts

12/16/2014 05:58 pm ET | Updated Feb 15, 2015
SemiCharmedLife-DLF via Getty Images

'Tis the season! If you're like me, you have cocktail parties ahead. This means you need some fun facts up your sleeve so you can be the life of the party. At the very least, it's better than trying to win the ugly Christmas sweater contest!

1. You know how Santa is really a myth? Well, so is the Hanukkah cup of oil.

Most of us learn that Hanukkah is the story of a small band of Jews, the Maccabees, who in 165 BCE defeated the mighty Syrian-Greek army that had just destroyed the sacred Jewish Temple. When the Maccabees went to rededicate the Temple, they found only a tiny bit of oil, just enough for one day. But, it burned for eight. A holiday was born -- another in the Jewish tradition of, "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat." In this case, we celebrate the oil "miracle" by eating oily foods like potato latkes and jelly donuts.

But there is no mention of oil in the books of Maccabees. This myth didn't become significant until hundreds of years later. Having witnessed the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and two failed rebellions, the rabbis of the day wanted to deemphasize the notion of might -- which wasn't working so well. They added the oil miracle to shift the focus toward faith in God.

2. Anyone for dreidel, that old German gambling game?

Most of us associate dreidels with Hanukkah, but it turns out that Jews didn't invent the game. They adapted it from German Christians, who had likely borrowed it from the Greeks and Romans. The German Christmas Eve custom was to spin a top, each side of which featured a different letter. In fact, the Hebrew letters on a Hanukkah dreidel come from Judeo-German words nimm (take), gib (give), halb (half), and stell (put). Somewhere along the way the letters became associated with the Hebrew words nes gadol haya sham, which translates: "a great miracle happened there." But if you're in Israel, the great "miracle" happened "here," not "there," so Israeli dreidels have a different fourth letter!

3. You think our community is fractured? You should have seen it 2,000 years ago!

Back in the day, Syrian-Greeks weren't they only enemies; Jews did plenty of infighting. Some Jews, including the Maccabees, were traditionalists who wanted to remain loyal to the past. Others chose to embrace the present, which meant assimilating to fit into the rapidly modernizing Greek world. Like today, just about the only common ground was that everyone hated corruption -- embodied then by the High Priest.

4. You know about Christmas in July. What about Sukkot in December?

Many Jews celebrate the fall harvest holiday known as Sukkot. It turns out that Sukkot and Hanukkah share a big connection: both are celebrated for eight days.

According to the Book of Maccabees, the Jews were shut out of the Temple for more than two years. When they could finally get back in to purify the sanctuary and offer sacrifices, they "lighted lamps and celebrated for eight days in the manner of the festival of Sukkot." Since they'd missed the chance to celebrate Sukkot at the Temple that fall, it makes sense that their new celebration adopted the eight-day plan. Further evidence that the oil story might be full of water!

5. Sorry, friend, but you've been lighting the Hanukkah menorah all wrong!

Throughout rabbinic literature, ongoing debate rages between two rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. Among many disagreements is the proper way to light Hanukkah candles.

In the Talmud, Shammai says to light eight candles on the first night, and then one fewer each night. His reasoning? We decrease the number of lights just as we decrease the number of bulls sacrificed each day of Sukkot (Sukkot again!). Hillel, on the other hand, instructs us to light one candle on the first night and add a candle each night. He sees it as a matter of increasing our holiness. So, while most of us light like Hillel, maybe this is the year to do it Shammai's way!

6. Hanukkah is a pagan ritual? Of course!

Like most Jewish holidays, Hanukkah has connections to celebrations of the past. Remember, people generally adapt what their neighbors are doing. Underlying Hanukkah is likely a seasonal festival, either the autumn equinox or the winter solstice -- both of which were marked by lighting candles or fires. Another reason to buy a Hanukkah menorah!

7. Pass the wine and cheese! And, did you hear the one about the woman who used this combo to decapitate her enemy?

While it didn't make the cut into the Hebrew Bible (neither did the Book of Maccabees, by the way), it's worth knowing the story of Judith. Legend says she was a widow who lived in the 6th century BCE, a time when the Assyrians continually attacked the Israelites. Judith took it upon herself to meet with an Assyrian general, feed him salty cheese (to make him thirsty), and then quench his thirst with wine. Once he was good and drunk, he passed out. Judith then decapitated him with his own sword so the Israelites could attack.

While this story is set several centuries before the events of Hanukkah, it has come to be associated with Hanukkah. Some even claim that Judith was a relative of Judah Maccabee. So, you don't have to stick to oily foods at your Hanukkah table (or cocktail party!). This year, consider adding cheesecake, noodle kugel, and cheese blintzes!

8. Judah Maccabee is one of my heroes.

Hanukkah is about heroes. Judah Maccabee was a hero in his day. Known for his dedication and military skill, he molded a small band of untrained, poorly armed farmers into a formidable fighting force that resisted those who would destroy them.

At a time when our world needs heroes, I like to remember Judah!