The quick history behind the Festival of Lights and how the holiday is commonly celebrated today.
Chanukah, a Hebrew word meaning “dedication,” celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by the Greek Seleucids in 164 BCE along with the military victory of the Maccabees, a group of zealots who fought for the right to practice Jewish ritual. Known as the Festival of Lights, Chanukah is an eight-day holiday that begins on the eve of the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev.
Beginning in 167 BCE, the Jews of Judea rebelled against the oppression of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire. Judah the Maccabee, the eldest son of the priest Mattityahu (Mattathias), was the military leader of the first phase of the revolt. In autumn of 164 BCE, Judah and his followers were able to capture the Temple in Jerusalem, which the Seleucids had turned into a pagan shrine. The Maccabees cleansed the Temple and rededicated it to the God of the Jews. An eight-day celebration ensued modelled after Sukkot, the autumn harvest festival. Later rabbinic tradition ascribed the length of the holiday to a miraculous small amount of oil that burned for eight days.
Like Passover, Chanukah celebrates liberation from oppression and freedom of worship and religion. In spite of the human action that is commemorated, never far from the surface is the theology that the liberation was possible only thanks to the miraculous support of the Divine.
Chanukah is actually quite a minor festival. Since it is not biblically ordained, the liturgy is not well developed. However, it has become one of the most beloved Jewish holidays. In an act of defiance against those who would root out Jewish practice, the observance of Chanukah has assumed a visible community aspect. Jews often gather for communal celebrations and public candle lightings complete with songs and dreidel, a spinning top game resembling roulette where participants typically compete for change or chocolate coins.
One of the most recognized symbols of Chanukah is the chanukkiah, an eight-branched candelabrum. Every night, one new candle is added to the menorah. A shamash, or helper candle, is used to light each candle from left to right. (The chanukiah is also referred to — erroneously — as a Chanukah menorah, but a true menorah has only seven branches).
In commemoration of the legendary cruse of oil, it is traditional to eat foods fried in oil such as latkes (potato pancakes) and the Israeli favorite, sufganiyot (jelly donuts). In Europe, a tradition developed of giving small amounts of money, nuts and raisins to children at this time. Influenced by Christmas, which takes place around the same time of year, Chanukah has evolved into the central gift-giving holiday in the Jewish calendar in the Western world.