Talking About Hanukkah in Chinese


Adopting traditions to ring in the Chinese New Year in the US prove just as valuable as adhering to the tradition of gorging on latkes during Hanukkah while living in Xi’an, China.

Tradition moved me enough to host hanukkah gatherings every year, starting with hauling several pounds of potatoes and onions from the market, grating them using the stainless steel tower-like grater I used for cheese the remaining 364 days (or when I could afford to buy cheese from Metro), and then hoping the Chinese kitchen god would grant my fingers safe passage.

Maintaining an allegiance to Jewish roots, as I alluded to in Family Histories, caused stirring conversations and reactions:

Being Jewish during the last four years in Xi’an always managed to pique someone’s interest: students, strangers, ZJ’s family and friends. I’d always receive a “oh that makes sense” nod as my students would embarrassingly equate my intelligence with my religious/cultural background. ZJ’s friends, when meeting me in person for the first time, would tell us that I looked like or seemed like I was Jewish, although they’d base this on never having met a Jew in the flesh before. The first Chinese New Year I celebrated at ZJ’s childhood home, his parents paid the usual compliment about Jewish intellect. I also heard from any of the previously mentioned parties about Jews and money, our cunningness, exceptional entrepreneurial skills, and political sphere of influence. Israel came up when covered in the news and was often referred to as America’s little brother, in the same way that the American media once considered China as Russia’s younger brother.

I bring this up in the context of Hanukkah, Chanukah, or the Festival of Lights beginning at sundown on Sunday here in the US.

Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday. 光明节是犹太人的节日。Guāngmíng jié shì yóutàirén de jiérì.


Credit: Dreamstime

光明节 Guāng míng jié – Hannukah, the eight day holiday of latkes, dreidel, and menorah fame starts on the 25th day of Kislev, or falls from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar.

Interesting to note, the Chinese and Jewish calendars are solar-lunar. A month is a real month – the time it takes for the moon to circle the earth. A year is a real year – the time it takes for the earth to circle the sun. Since the lunar months don’t quite add up to a year, an extra month is added in leap years. In both calendars, leap years occur seven times every 19 years.

A leap year fell last year, the Jewish year of 5774. 2014 also saw two months of Adar, standard in leap years, and coincidentally, the beginning of Adar I also ushered in the arrival of the Year of the Horse.

Jewish and Chinese holidays often occur on the full moon; Hanukkah proves an exception. It’s on the darkest nights of the, at least, in the norhtern hemisphere when the days are shortest and there is either no moon or merely the last two or the first two of the lunar cycle. How fitting then for a Festival of Lights.

Breaking down the characters and displaying their multi-faceted translations:

光 Guāng – light, scenery, honor, glory 

明 míng – bright, brilliant, light, clear 

节 jié – festival, holiday 

Wishing someone a Happy Hanukkah requires adding on the sentiments: 祝你[们]光明节快乐!Zhù nǐ guāngmíng jié kuàilè! I wish you (all) a Happy Hanukkah!

You would be ill advised to talk about the holiday without mentioning dreidels, latkes, menorahs, gelt and another lesser known tradition.

光明节陀螺 Guāngmíng jié tuóluó -dreidel, a spinning top with Hebrew letters printed on each side, representative of the message a “great miracle happened there” (refers to the miracle of oil lasting for eight days when only enough for one day existed). Dreidels in the US say “there,” referring to Israel, whereas the spinning tops in Israel say “here.”

土豆煎饼 tǔdòu jiānbing – latkes, aka potato pancakes

灯台 dēngtái – Menorah 

巧克力金币 qiǎokèlì jīnbì – gelt, chocolate coins used for the dreidel game 

果冻甜甜圈 guǒdòng tián tián quān – Sufganiyot, jelly donuts devoured during the holiday 

Follow Xiananigans over at Bloglovin. Like us on Facebook. Reach out to me on FacebookTwitterGoogle +PinterestLinkedInTumblrInstagramWeibo.

4 thoughts on “Talking About Hanukkah in Chinese

  1. CrazyChineseFamily says:

    You wrote that Hanukkah is celebrated at the darkest time oftheyear,so is it similar as the winter solstice? I have forgotten too much from my religion classes I had till eight years ago and also from my theology studies :p

  2. travelforcause says:

    Marissa, I’ve been a quiet reader of your blog these past couple of years. This post as well as your other posts about sharing your personal and family traditions with your family and community in China really resonated with me. Ive also enjoyed your posts about bridging identity, especially now that you are back in the US. Wishing you a Happy Hanukkah and looking forward to more of your posts!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s