Jewish people around the world are celebrating Chanukah this year from the evening of December 16th to the afternoon of December 24th. While the eight-day holiday normally falls in December (the dates are designated according to the Jewish lunar calendar), and there is a tradition of gift-giving, Chanukah is not – as some people believe – “the Jewish Christmas.” Rather, it is a distinct holiday that celebrates an important military victory in Jewish history.
In the second century BCE, the Syrian-Greeks attempted to conquer Israel and force her people to accept Hellenic rule by destroying their holy Temple. A small band of Jewish resistance fighters instead conquered the invaders and drove them out of Israel. When the Jewish people re-consecrated their Temple and sought to light their menorah – or candelabrum – they found that the invaders had left only enough uncontaminated oil to last one day. Miraculously, once the oil was lit in the Temple, it burned for eight days, during which new oil was prepared and purified.
We commemorate this miracle during the eight days of Chanukah when we light candles on our own menorahs, starting with one candle the first night and adding another candle each night until eight candles are burning on the eighth night. After the candles are lit, it is customary to give small gifts of money, or gelt, to the children, which they then can distribute to a needy recipient. This is done not only to add to the festive holiday spirit, but also teaches children about charity and good deeds, and our ability to channel material wealth toward spiritual ends.
Like most holidays, specific foods are associated with Chanukah. These consist largely of foods with lots of oil, fried or not, to remind us of the miracle of the oil in the Temple. Amongst the most popular dishes are latkes, or pancakes, usually made with potatoes, and sufganiot, a type of jelly doughnut.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve tried to avoid excessive fried foods, and gravitate more to dishes like hummus with the traditional pool of olive oil in the middle, or a small bowl of seasoned olive oil for dipping bread. But let’s face it: Chanukah is about the oil, and it wouldn’t be Chanukah without at least one oily dish every day, and at least a few of them fried.
All of this oil – in addition to adding a pound or two to one’s hips – can be a little heavy on the stomach. And so I make sure to enjoy plenty of tea during Chanukah. One of the benefits of drinking tea is that the antioxidants can aid in the digestion of fatty foods by increasing the flow of digestive enzymes. There is also evidence that tea removes excess body fat as its diuretic properties help flush impurities out of the gastrointestinal system.
Should you feel sluggish after eating heavy, oil-laden meals, the L-theanine in tea can gently perk you up enough for a rousing game of dreidel, another Chanukah tradition. And a tummy upset by too much celebrating can be soothed with the warmth of a good cup of tea – your regular favourite or, if you prefer, a decaffeinated version.
While I don’t usually concern myself with the health benefits of tea – I prefer to drink tea solely for the joy of it – it’s good to know that if I’ve had a little too much “holiday” I can always turn to tea for comfort. And then I’m ready to grab a good second-flush or autumnal Darjeeling with my delicious jelly doughnut!
Now I’d like to leave you with this story, which I have published here for the past couple of seasons, of a very special and beautiful Chanukah tea tradition.
By the 1790s, Jewish people in Russia were subject to many restrictions. Most Jewish people were banished by 1799 by Catherine the Great to the Pale of Settlement — an area encompassing parts of Russia and Poland. They were forbidden to practice most of the more lucrative professions, with the result that most of the Jewish population were deeply impoverished. Only a small number of Jewish professionals — physicians, for example — were permitted to stay in the cities. It was they who developed this lovely Chanukah ritual. Each guest was given a glass of tea and a brandy-soaked sugar cube on a spoon. The sugar cubes were then lit on fire. Guests held the flaming cubes while they sang Chanukah songs. When the songs were finished, all of the guests simultaneously dropped their flaming sugar cubes into their tea — and then stirred the tea and drank it with great enjoyment.
This lovely tradition is still practiced in some communities, and is a fitting custom for a holiday we also call The Festival of Lights. Wishing all of you a Happy Chanukah of eight nights filled with beautiful lights and eight days filled with beautiful teas.