Last year, even while at the party where we were given such generous, thoughtful gifts, I was still unsure about Chanukah. This year, well, I need to re-read some of that stuff we read last year :0) There are so many things going on in my head. First of all, I want to honor HaShem with everything. But I grew up with Christmas, have so many wonderful memories, and can't get them connected to pagan traditions in my heart. My head understands, my heart follows, but my emotions pull at me. I can't really explain it. Anyway, I'm shedding my pagan layers of traditions and it is a bit of a grieving process with this holiday for me.
So, what does all of this have to do with the dreidel, you ask? I am sad to be leaving behind my families traditions (thrilled and thankful for an opportunity to honor my Master, however) so I want to be good and sure I'm not adopting new, pagan traditions.
Here is what I have found:
There are many stories of what the significance and origin is of the game. And then multiple variations on those stories. One story is that when the Syrian's were attempting to keep the Jewish people from studying, the Jewish people would instead hide their study material and pull out the dreidel so it looked as if they were just playing a game. (about.com)A variation on that theme is that children would play with the dreidel outside the houses where people were studying. It gave the kids a viable reason to be there in the eyes of any approaching Syrian, and gave the families a chance to be warned so they could hide their studying before being caught. (random site).
I appreciated this quote, from above mentioned random site:
There is a midrashic explanation of the meaning of the dreidel that holds that the four letters on the sides of the dreidel represent the four kingdoms which attempted to destroy Israel in ancient times, but which passed away from history, while Israel is still alive and well. They are, according to the letters on the dreidel: NUN (Nebuchadnezzar/Babylonia); HAY (Haman/Persia); GIMEL (Gog/Greece); SHIN/SIN (Se'ir/identified with Esau and hence with Rome). Although this explanation is midrashic in nature and does not explain the origins of the dreidel, it is an explanation very much in keeping with the history and theme of Chanukah.
But it looks like this is really a gambling game from 16th century England, Ireland or Germany called "totum" or "teetotum". But then, dreidel is a gambling game, so there you go. Hmm, now I just read a tid bit from the History Channel and they say the Jewish people have been playing this game since the time of Antiochus, which was before the Maccabees revolted. As I continue reading, I find this on a few sites. However, so far, no pagan connections. And I have read so many (not necessarily credible) sites that my eyes are blurry.
Now, I hadn't thought about gambling and how that is honoring or not to Ha Shem. That is for another post I guess!