Category Archives: Western Pennsylvania

Hanukkah: Celebrate the Festival of Lights!

Hanukkah is not one of the most important holidays in Judaism. But it’s certainly the most well-known.

Hanukkah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar (which happens to fall on Dec. 18 this year), is an eight-day celebration.

Most gentiles (or non Jews) know Hanukkah as the story of the miracle of the oil. That is, as the story goes, one container of usable oil ended up lasting eight nights.

But there’s more to the celebration.

Hanukkah also celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. As the story goes, the Seleucids desecrated the Second Temple. A group known as the Maccabees eventually won in what is known as the Maccabean Revolt.

The word “Hanukkah” is rooted in the Hebrew word for “dedication.”

Hanukkah tradition: Lighting candles

There is really only one long-standing tradition for Hanukkah: Light candles.

As is customary for the holiday, each candle should be lit for at least 30 minutes (though, some candelabras now offer electric candles with push buttons!).

After the lighting of candles, those gathered offer sayings and sing “Maoz Tzur.”

The display of candles is meant to be a very public thing. So, typically candles are displayed in the most prominent window in the house.

(Of course, fire safety methods should be followed, and candles shouldn’t be left lit unattended.)

A menorah has seven candle branches. The hanukkiah (or hanukkiah menorah) offers nine candle branches: One for each night plus the shammash, which is considered the “helper” candle that is used to light the others. “Menorah” is the Hebrew word for “lamp.”

It’s important to note that every hanukkiah is a menorah. But not every menorah is a hanukkiah.

Public displays

Efforts in the 1970s in the United States by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to popularize Hanukkah led to a number of public hanukkiah displays.

Other Hanukkah traditions: Dreidel

Along the way, other traditions have helped to shape Hanukkah celebrations.

A popular Hanukkah tradition that nearly all elementary children learn about is the dreidel.

While the game is fun for children, dreidel grew out of a necessity to learn Hebrew and study the Torah after Greek King Antiochus IV, in 175 BCE, outlawed Jewish worship.

The four sides of the dreidel display:

  • Nun (נ)
  • Gimmel (ג)
  • Hey (ה)
  • Shin (ש)

When combined, “nun,” “gimmel,” “hay” and “shin” translate to “a great miracle happened there.”

How is dreidel played?

With at least two players, you’ll need the dreidel and tokens (usually chocolate tokens called gelt).

  1. Divide the tokens (gelt) equally among those playing.
  2. Spin the dreidel to see the order of game play. “Nun” is the highest rank, followed by “gimmel,” “hey” and “shin.” If there’s a tie? You know the drill: Keep spinning!
  3. Players place one token in the middle to play.
  4. Each player spins the dreidel once. Depending on the side the dreidel lands on, the player gives or takes tokens from the group collection.
    1. Shin: Add a token to the middle
    2. Nun: No action
    3. Gimmel: Take all of the tokens!
    4. Hay: Get half of all tokens in the middle. If there’s an odd number, round up.
  5. Play in a clockwise direction.
  6. Game continues until someone wins all of the tokens! (It’s much shorter than Monopoly!)
  7. Run out of tokens? Your game play is either over or you could ask for a “loan” from another player.
  8. Winner eats (but also could share) the chocolate!

Foods

What is a celebration without food?

Along with the gelt for playing dreidel, Hanukkah has evolved into a scrumptious food fest, complete with latkes (topped with applesauce or sour cream); brisket; sufganiyot (kind of like a jelly-filled doughnut); kugel (a Jewish noodle casserole dish) and cheesy foods (blintzes, cheese danishes, etc).

Gift-giving

Though considered to be a more recent tradition, giving gifts has become part of Hanukkah, which is said to derive from European tradition and the constant comparison between Hanukkah and Christmas in the United States.

Though the origins of gift-giving are generally unclear, it is said the idea of giving gifts grew in the 1950s as a way to make Jewish children be proud to be Jewish as they saw their friends and others getting gifts for Christmas.

Downtown Pittsburgh holiday season must-dos

Missed Light Up Night? Still want that selfie with all the trees? Check out these spots to hit on a fun “holiday day” in Downtown Pittsburgh! See the map below. These are listed in no particular order so that you can customize your own holiday fun!

Downtown Pittsburgh

  • See the Horne’s tree. Yes, it’s now called the Highmark Tree, formerly the Unity Tree (that name needs to come back. Maybe Highmark Unity Tree). This is the crème de la crème of Pittsburgh holiday season decorations. The tree beautifully sparkles at the corner of Stanwix and Penn along the corner of the former flagship Horne’s department store building. While decorated windows and shopping no longer exist here, the tree can serve as a great backdrop for that holiday season selfie!
    • Tip: Stand near the Pittsburgh Regional Transit’s Gateway Station for a fuller shot of the tree.
  • Shop the Holiday Market at Market Square. Find more than 30 artisans and vendors at Pittsburgh’s mini version of a German Christmas market, complete with adorable chalets. Local artists, such as Linda Barnicott, display everything from ornaments to paintings, and other artisans have wearables (gloves, sweaters, hats), edibles (baked goods and more), smellables (is this even a word?) (candles) and more. While at Market Square, check out the dazzling lights, sphere tree and entertainment.
  • Get a group photo with the large ornament at K&L Gates Center. The huge red ornament is up! Check it out in front of the main entrance to K&L Gates Center at 210 Sixth Ave.
  • See the 107th Pittsburgh Christmas tree. Check out the ornaments depicting each of the city’s neighborhoods.
  • Skate at PPG Place. This rink is larger than New York City’s Rockefeller Center! Enjoy the PPG Place tree and ice rink before or after dinner. Check out details and prices here. Not an ice skater? Stop by for a selfie of the dazzling tree with all of its colorful designs!
  • Visit the Pittsburgh creche. It’s the only authorized replica of the creche at the Vatican. That’s a big deal for Catholics.
  • Visit Point State Park to see the snowflakes. After more than 30 years, Duquesne Light turned off the lights of the recognizable tree at the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers. A new display is expected in 2024, but in the interim, Duquesne Light gave the Point some holiday flare.
  • Spot the Pittsburgh area landmarks at the Carnegie Science Center train display. Popular Pittsburgh area landmarks — Kaufmann’s building, Mister Rogers’ house, etc. — dot the landscape of this adorable train display. Don’t rush through it — watch day turn to nighttime! Also, while at the science center, check out the holiday laser lights show. Admission is required for the science center.
  • See Santa Downtown. Check out Santa’s schedule and give him a visit.