How is Hanukkah celebrated in Germany today?
Every year, Hanukkah brings a glow of celebration to the cold, dark German winter weather. A special event in the country’s calendar, here’s how the Festival of Lights is celebrated in the federal republic today.
What is celebrated during Hanukkah?
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, also known as Chanukkah, falls every year in early winter. Over the eight-day-long Festival of Lights, Jewish people come together with their family and friends to recognise the religious holiday.
Hannukah, which can be translated as “re-dedication”, commemorates the Maccabees’ battle against the Greeks to freely practice Judaism. Around 2.000 years ago the Maccabees, a group of rebel warriors, fought a three-year-long war against the Greeks, who had forbidden people from practising Jewish traditions.
Once their war was won, the Maccabees celebrated by lighting a candle in the temple that they had reclaimed. While the group only had enough oil to burn the candle for one day, the flame stayed lit for eight, hence the significance of burning eight candles on the menorah over the Hanukkah period.
A very short history of Judaism and Hanukkah in Germany
Jewish people have lived in Germany for 1.700 years. But Jews have been repeatedly driven out of Germany and many countries across the world throughout history. And, as was the case for the Maccabees over 2.000 years ago, have often been forbidden from practising their religion.
One crucial stage in the acceptance of Judaism and Jewish people in Germany came as Enlightenment ideals of religious tolerance and natural rights spread across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. During this period and into the 19th century, many Jewish writers, philosophers and painters became esteemed in German society. However, antisemitism was still rife, with German publicist Wilhelm Marr popularising the word in 1879.
As World War I broke out, around 100.000 German-Jews fought as part of the country’s Imperial Army, which many took as symbolic of Jews having been accepted into German society. However this sentiment would not last for long. With fascism taking advantage of Germany’s vulnerable, postwar economic climate, Jewish people, including those who had not practised Judaism for generations, became the main target of Hitler’s politics.
Simultaneously targeting any symbols of Judaism, the Nazis looted and destroyed synagogues across the country, while Jewish people were further pushed to the margins of society. This persecution was captured by a now iconic photograph taken by Rachel Posner in 1931, showing her family’s Hanukkah menorah sitting on the windowsill of their home in Kiel, a long, swastika banner billowing in the background outside. Posner wrote on the back of the photograph: “The flag says "death to Judaism", the light says "Judaism will live forever"."
By 1948, German Jews had begun to rebuild their religion and culture as a part of postwar German society, founding around 100 communities. Then with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, around 220.000 Jewish people were given refugee status and emigrated to Germany in large numbers.
Today, there are estimated to be around 200.000 Jewish people in the country, and while not all practice Judaism, the Hanukkah holiday is given special recognition due to Germany’s historic antisemitism.
How is Hanukkah acknowledged in Germany?
Hanukkah is recognised in several official ceremonies in Germany as well as at home with family and friends. Here is a selection of the kinds of events and traditions you can expect to find:
The Brandenburg Gate menorah
Since 2004, Hanukkah in Germany has begun with an official ceremony to light a candle on Europe’s largest menorah, which finds its home in front of the Brandenburg Gate during the Festival of Lights. The menorah is often lit by a Rabbi accompanied by a German politician.
Each lighting is followed by readings, speeches and music in front of the 32-foot-high candelabra.
Official Hanukkah celebrations in Germany
In Germany, it is common for the chancellor, president or another senior political figure to make an official visit to a synagogue or Hanukkah event during the festival season.
Senior rabbis or representatives of the Central Council of Jews in Germany often attend such events. The Central Council of Jews in Germany was founded in the 1950s and has over 91.000 members across the country today.
Saying Happy Hanukkah with sufganiyot and latkes
As with all religious holidays across the world, many people choose different parts of the Hanukkah traditions that are most important to them. Perhaps one of the most common Hanukkah traditions, among practising and non-practising Jewish people, is sharing sufganiyah doughnuts and latkes with family and friends.
Hanukkah means eating all things fried (AKA all things delicious). This starts with potato latkes, which are similar to German regional specialities such as Reibekuchen or Kartoffelpuffer. Latkes have a crispy, golden exterior and a soft potatoey goodness within. Good latkes aren't dry, but they go down smoother with some creamy sauce, such as Greek yoghurt or sour cream.
Now for dessert: Sufganiyot are filled doughnuts commonly piped with custard or jam inside and dusted with powdered sugar, a sweet treat that doesn’t stray far from the classic Berliner Pfannkuchen commonly eaten on New Year.
Celebrating Weihnukka in Germany
Weihnukka (as in, Weihnachten and Hanukkah) was first celebrated among Jewish people living in interfaith or secular households in 19th-century Germany. The spin-off English term “Chrismukkah” was repopularised by the US TV series The O.C. back in the early 2000s.
In a country that is mad on Christmas, Weihnukka gives Jewish people in Germany the opportunity to avoid the so-called “December Dilemma” and instead opt for a holiday mash-up, which might involve decorating a “Hanukkah bush”, a form of Christmas tree with blue lights and Hanukkah-related decorations.
There might also be a visit from the Hanukkah Man, also known as Yarma Claus, who will dole out presents to children. Also first seen in The O.C., dedicated Yarma Clauses might don a Kippa-Santa hat combo. The original TV prop version is part of the collection of the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
However you plan to celebrate Hanukkah in Germany this year, we hope you have a cosy time celebrating with family and friends!
Thumb image credit: Roman Babakin / Shutterstock.com