The remains of the Thanksgiving turkey may still be in the refrigerator, but it's already time for the next holiday to begin.

The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah begins at sundown tonight, just about the earliest possible date on the secular calendar, and the faithful will light candles for eight nights in a row to celebrate the successful Maccabean revolt and the miracle of the oil. Families gather to eat food cooked with oil, exchange gifts and sing holiday hymns.

Although a relatively minor observance on the Jewish calendar, it has been hyped up in North America so Jewish children do not feel left out of December celebrations, Jewish leaders say.

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But the early arrival of the holiday has caught some area parents off guard.

"I'm not ready yet," said Lisa Aberman, of Egg Harbor Township, although she has bought gifts for her stepson, Quinn. "With all the Christmas sales, it's easer when you're shopping for Hanukkah. You don't feel like shopping when you're getting ready for Thanksgiving."

"It just means I have to get busy tonight to get ready for tomorrow," Rebecca Rosenberg, of Linwood, said Tuesday evening. "I have a lot of wrapping to do."

Joel Krauss, of Margate, said he is "as ready as I'm going to be" to celebrate the holiday with his 7-year-old triplets, Hannah, Rebecca and Adam. The children will light candles in the menorahs they made at the Beth El Synagogue Hebrew school, because "it makes it more important to them," he said.

But others are more prepared. Beth El held a holiday bazaar several weeks ago, and Elizabeth DeShields, of Egg Harbor Township, said she got all her shopping done then.

The children walking out of Hebrew school Tuesday night carrying their handmade menorahs had one thing to say: Bring it on. The earlier Hanukkah starts, the better.

"I think it's awesome because you get presents earlier," said Quinn Aberman, 10.

"When it was later last year, it didn't come as fast," said 11-year-old Jessica Gold, of Linwood, adding that Hanukkah is her favorite holiday.

Siblings Jenna and Matthew Green, ages 9 and 10, of Egg Harbor Township, said they prefer Hanukkah to occur well before Christmas. They celebrate both holidays, so having them a few weeks apart means double the gifts.

For most area rabbis, Hanukkah happens when it happens, and its proximity to Christmas is of little or no concern. The Hebrew calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, with a leap month added seven times every 19 years to keep it in line with the solar year.

The eight-day holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the second-century B.C. victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks. Jewish tradition states that authorities prohibited the Jews from practicing their faith and insisted they worship the Greek pagan gods. The Maccabees revolted and reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem but found enough ritually pure oil to light the sacred lamps for only one day. But tradition states a miracle occurred, and the oil lasted for eight days, thus the long celebration.

The timing of the holiday is an odd occurrence this year but does not affect the celebration, said Rabbi Avrohom Rapoport of Chabad of Atlantic County.

"It's always nice to have Hanukkah sooner," Rapoport said. "It's a great holiday, so why wait so long?"

Hanukkah is centered around the candles in the menorah, but it is traditional to sit nearby and watch the fires burn, Rapoport said. So families sit around the lights and eat holiday food, play with the holiday spinning top, the dreidel, and enjoy each other's company.

"The menorah is about sending an important message to the world, of hope, light and freedom," Rapoport said, and the candles are usually lit in a window or near the door. "We live in a world that needs that message today. People have to accept others and allow them to live the lifestyle they want to live."

"It's just the way it is" that Hanukkah comes early this year, said Rabbi Aaron Krauss of Beth El Synagogue. "I don't think it makes any difference."

This year, 5771 on the Hebrew calendar, is a leap year, so next year, Hanukkah will come closer to Christmas, Krauss said.

Krauss said he recently gave a talk about holidays that take place this time of year: the Hindu Diwali, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwaanza. Most of them include a ritual of lighting candles to brighten up the darkest time of the year.

"We have in this country a variety of traditions, and we all live together in harmony," Krauss said. "It's spreading light physically and spiritually," to see the needs of others and to dispel ignorance.

An early Hanukkah is a good thing, even though Jews have to finish their holiday preparations sooner, said Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Beth Judah Congregation in Ventnor.

"It's acutally nice because we set it off from the other holidays in December," Gaber said. "It provides an opportunity for us to really focus on Hanukkah and not the other holidays."

Late December is a busy time for many people, so this year Jews do not have to juggle the Hanukkah celebration around other obligations, Gaber said.

"It just takes some planning and organization" he said.

And that planning and organization for Hanukkah will be a must three years from now. In 2013, the holiday begins the night of Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving.

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