Many people think of Hanukkah as the “Jewish Christmas”. However, Hanukkah has nothing to do with Christmas or the life of Jesus Christ. The only similarities between the holidays is that they fall around the same time every year and they feature festive lights.
The story of Hanukkah begins in 167 B.C.E., where Antiochus, the Syrian-Greek emperor of land that is now part of Israel, made the observance of Judaism punishable by death and ordered all Jews to worship Greek gods. A group of Jews, led by Mattathias Maccabee and his five sons refused to obey the law and led a guerilla war of resistance against the Syrian-Greek army. Despite being badly outnumbered, the Maccabees won and were able to re-take control of the holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
When they got to the Temple, they found that it had been defiled by the Syrian-Greek army who had used it as a stable for animals. To re-sanctify the Temple required that holy oil be burned for eight consecutive days but there was only enough oil left to last one day. Yet, the tiny bit of holy oil lasted for the full eight days and the Temple was re-sanctified and fit to be used again by the Jews.
Hanukkah is a celebration of miracles. It was a miracle that the Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greek army and it was a miracle that the oil lasted eight days.
The holiday is known as the Festival of Lights because it commemorates the eternal light which lasted eight days on the amount of oil that would regularly only last for one day. Jews celebrate Hanukkah by lighting candles in a Menorah or Hanukiyah each night.
This year, the first candle on the Menorah will be lit on the night of Dec. 8 and continue until all nine candles are burning on Dec. 16. Many people now are wondering a couple of things; what is a Menorah and why are nine candles lit if there are only eight nights?
To answer the first question, a Menorah is a candle holder designed solely for the celebration of Hanukkah. Secondly, there are nine candles instead of eight, because there is a candle that sits in the middle of the Menorah, known as the Shamash, which serves the purpose of igniting the flame for the other candles.
Then, there is the food. Traditional Hanukkah foods consist of Latkes (potato pancakes) and Sufganiyot (jelly donuts). Children play the Dreidel game with a special spinning top and they wager chocolate coins called Gelt. The holiday began with Jewish parents giving their children chocolate coins instead of gifts but, in the U.S., many Jewish parents give their children gifts because of the proximity of Christmas.
Overall, Hanukkah is a happy holiday. It’s a time to play games, eat good food and to hear the story of the miracle of Hanukkah and the Maccabees.