Chanukah, “Festival of Lights,” is a traditional Jewish holiday which falls sometime in late November or December. This year we are celebrating this holiday early. It began on Sunday evening, November 28, and it lasts for eight days and nights. This gives a timely opportunity to add Chanukah music to holiday performances. Although “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” is probably the most well-known Chanukah song, there are plenty of other songs — both traditional and contemporary (some humorous and some pensive) — associated with this holiday. One of my favorites is “O Chanukah, O Chanukah” which I have arranged for mountain dulcimer.
About Chanukah Spelling
Although I am using the spelling, “Chanukah,” there are plenty of other ways to spell this word. “Hanukkah” is probably the second most frequently used spelling. The differences arise from the fact that several sounds and characters in the Hebrew alphabet are not found in the Latin and English alphabets. Hence, there are differences in interpretation of the tone and sound. So, use the spelling which you prefer — there are no right or wrong spellings.
What are the dates of Chanukah? Jewish holidays follow the the Hebrew calendar which is based on the lunar cycle. Thus, the dates of Jewish holidays differ every year and differ from the Western calendar. Chanukah always starts on the night of the 25th of Kislev and lasts for eight nights and days. This year it began on Sunday night, November 28.
The highlight of this holiday, at least for me, is lighting the menorah — one candle each night until all eight candles are lit. (We always darken the lights in the room and let the candles shine on our dinner table with plenty of shadows on the walls!) A traditional blessing or prayer over the candles is recited in Hebrew as the candle(s) are lit. Also, this celebration includes eating fried foods such as potato latkes and applesauce or sour cream, donuts fried in oil, playing the dreidel game and singing songs about Chanukah. Chocolate coins, or gelt, is traditionally given out; typically while playing the dreidel game. And don’t forget the presents. One each night!
“Chanukah” actually refers to the “redemption” of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. During the second century, B.C., the Holy Land was invaded and ruled by Syrian-Greeks led by the forces of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (reigned 175–164 BCE). He desecrated the Hebrew temples and to tried force the Hebrew people to accept the Greek culture. During a three-year struggle, led by Led by Mattathias and his son Judas Maccabeus (died c. 161 BCE), the Maccabees defeated far superior forces and reclaimed their temples.
To rededicate their Second Temple, Judas Maccabeus proclaimed that the altar should be lit each year on the night of the 25th of Kislev in celebration of their victory. When Judas entered the temple, however, he found only a small jar of oil that had not been defiled by Antiochus. By a miracle, the oil burnt in the menorah for eight nights. Hence, we have the the modern celebration (actually centuries old) which lasts for eight nights.
“O Chanukah, O Chanukah” Song for Mountain Dulcimer
In addition to eating traditional foods, playing the dreidel game and lighting the menorah, music is part of this celebration. Once you begin to research the topic, you will discover that there are many traditional folk and children’s songs and well as contemporary songs written for the Chanukah festival. For example, “Light One Candle,” by the folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary represents a contemporary song about Chanukah. Years ago, I typed an entire tune book of Jewish tunes, mainly Chanukah songs, for dulcimer folk artist, Dallas Cline. It is a delightful collection of tunes.
One of my favorite songs from her collections is, “O Chanukah, O Chanukah.” The lyrics speak of lighting the menorah, of dancing and having fun with the dreidel and latkes as the lights burn low to remind us of the events leading to this celebration which occurred centuries ago.
I reworked the tablature for the tune, simplifying the chords and placing it in the Key of E Minor using DAD tuning and Capo 1. This minor tuning gives it sort of a mystical feel. You can feel the shadows of the lit menorah on the walls of the temple at night. I added strums on the first and third beats of each measure to give a very rhythmic feel. I also added an English translation to the Hebrew lyrics. They fit the music, for the most part.
So, here is a new tune to add to your winter holiday repertory of music. There are still several remaining days and nights to celebrate the Chanukah festival this year. This version of “O Chanukah, O Chanukah” is fairly easy to play. Place a capo on the dulcimer at the first fret, strum and pick. Since most of the chords are E minor ones, if you skip the notes on the middle and bass strings, the song still sounds great when played on the melody string with the other strings sounding as drones.
I hope you will enjoy this “Chanukah” tune!