It’s unlikely that you could miss the fact that it’s Christmas season. Everywhere you turn, there are decorations, songs, advertisements and displays. Even people who don’t celebrate the holiday probably have at least a basic understanding of what the holiday is about – particularly the secular celebrations. But this isn’t always true for other holidays that are also celebrated at this time of year, like Hanukkah.
Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, is a Jewish celebration that lasts eight days. It is a time to commemorate the purification and rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Though there seem to be several versions (as with most stories from long ago) among historians and scholars of the actual events that occurred, the basic story remains the same. In a time of great oppression, when Judaism was outlawed under Antiochus IV and the Seleucid monarchy, there was a rebellion and the Jewish people emerged victorious.
Legend has it that the temple, desecrated and devastated, was reclaimed in approximately 165 BCE, and the troops wanted to purify the temple by relighting the ner tamid (eternal light) to burn constantly in the temple. They discovered that there was oil enough for just one day, but lit the menorah anyway. A miracle occurred, with that small bit of oil lasting for eight days, allowing for time for a messenger to secure more oil.
The holiday begins on the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which places the holiday in late November or December. Because the Hebrew calendar is lunar, the date is not the same each year.
Hanukkah is not considered a major holiday in Jewish law, and has no restrictions on working, school or other activities. Still, because of the holiday’s proximity to the Christmas season, it has become largely celebrated, particularly in North America.
Like any holiday, there are many traditions around Hanukkah, including lighting a menorah, traditional food and games and gift exchanges.
One tradition that celebrates the miracle of the oil is the lighting of a special menorah, known as a hunukkiyah, every night for eight days. The first night after sundown, one candle is lit, with an additional candle added each night until there are eight candles burning. A ninth candle, the shamash (helper) is used to light the others. The ritual often includes the recitation of blessings, and the menorah is often displayed prominently in a window to commemorate the miracle.
Traditional foods consumed on Hanukkah are fried in oil, another reference to the Hanukkah miracle. Two of the most popular foods are latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jam-filled doughnuts).
Other traditions include playing a game with dreidels, four sided tops with a Hebrew letter on each side and chocolate coins. Some Hanukkah celebrations also include gift exchanges.
Sources: http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/hanukkah; http://www.reformjudaism.org/hanukkah-history; http://judaism.about.com/od/holidays/a/hanukkah.htm