Skip to content
Close this search box.
An image of a menorah with all nine candles lit and musical notes in the background to symbolize Hanukkah songs.

December – Week 2 – The Songs of Hanukkah

As I mentioned last week, I was raised celebrating Christmas. This isn’t to say that I know nothing about other religions’ holidays. For example, when it comes to Hanukkah, I know the basic story of the Maccabean uprising in the 2nd century BCE, and I know that Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights because of the oil that was only supposed to last for one day and instead miraculously burned for eight. But when it comes Hanukkah art, I know basically nothing. And since Christmas songs are one of my favourite parts of December, this week, I decided to look more into the tradition and history of Hanukkah songs.

What I learned is that the first Hanukkah songs are as old as the event itself, because the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean uprising was accompanied by music and hymns. In the centuries that followed, many more choral songs were written to celebrate this event. However, similar to Christmas, Hanukkah went through a re-branding in the late 19th century to try and popularize Hanukkah for American Jews. Hanukkah continued to go more mainstream in the 20th century, and in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, there was a conscious effort to produce Hanukkah songs that sounded more like American pop music. Since then, a wide variety of artists have released Hanukkah songs that span all genres of music, including rap, pop, funk, and folk. In light of this, I tried to hit as many of those genres as I could this past week.

First up, there was The Living Sisters and their beautiful harmonies in “Hanukkah“. I then fell in love with the rhythm and sound of “8 Days of Hanukkah” by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Next up was “The Latke Song” by Debbie Friedman, and good golly do I now want to try latkes. They sound delicious. I then listened to the adorable school choir of PS22 sing “Ma’oz Tzur” and R&B infused “The Hanukkah Song” by Too $hort. I finished off the week with the ridiculously catchy “Pass the Candle (Left to Right)” by Michelle Citrin. I’ll definitely be humming that one for the foreseeable future.

I also learned a lot more about the history of Hanukkah itself through these songs. For example, I never knew that the reason the burning of the oil for eight days was so significant was because it allowed the Maccabees enough time to make more oil, thereby ensuring that the flame in the Temple would never go out. I also discovered that historians consider the Maccabean uprising to be the first successful war for religious liberty and minority religious freedoms. Had that uprising not been successful, it’s entirely possible that Judaism could have been suppressed altogether by Hellenistic Greeks. It’s impossible to imagine how different the world would be today if that had happened. But it didn’t. And this past week I didn’t just read about Hanukkah songs. I read about how these songs are a celebration of the survival of the Jewish people and religion. Powerful stuff.

I didn’t just listen to music this week either. I also watched a wonderful short film called The Broken Candle by Felix Kiner. It’s available as part of the Hanukkah Film Festival, which can be found here. And it’s because of this film that I now know why there are nine candles on a menorah instead of eight. The centre candle is called the shamash, and it is used to light the other candles each night. You’ll have to watch the film to see how that plays out in the story, but let’s just say that if you don’t smile at the end you don’t have a heart.

I also diverted briefly from my Hanukkah journey of discovery to watch a Japanese film called Tokyo Godfathers. This film came to me through a recommendation, and I’m so happy it did. It tells the story of a group of homeless people in Tokyo; a man who lost his wife and daughter due to his alcoholism and gambling, a transgender woman, and a teenage runaway. They find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve, and spend the next several days trying to reunite the child with her mother. I’m not going to say anything more about the plot, because to do so would spoil it. But I will say that this film is an incredible commentary on the importance of found families and the kindness we should all show each other, no matter what our backgrounds.

That’s all for this week! Next week will have even more art of the holidays, so if you have any suggestions, please let me know. Until then, I hope everyone who celebrates it had a lovely Hanukkah. Thank you for allowing me to learn more about this holiday and the history and art behind it.

See you next week!

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!